Northern Ireland news

Colum Eastwood says border poll should be called when it's winnable

Colum Eastwood announced plans for a New Ireland Commission to discuss the island's future constitutional arrangements. Picture by Declan Roughan/Press Eye

COLUM Eastwood has said a border poll should be delayed until there's an opportunity for nationalists to win it.

The SDLP leader was speaking after announcing his party's forthcoming establishment of a 'New Ireland Commission' to discuss the island's future constitutional arrangements.

The forum will be made up of a number of panels and will feed into the work of the Dublin government's new Shared Ireland Unit.

The personnel of the various panels, including one drawn from 'elders' and another made up of younger contributors, will be announced over the course of the summer.

Mr Eastwood told The Irish News the aim of the project was to produce a "very substantial document that covers all the bases" but he declined to say when it would complete its work.

In addition to constitutional issues, the commission will examine areas such as all-Ireland health provision and economic policy.

The SDLP leader said changing circumstances made the case for a united Ireland more compelling.

"Looking at what's happening across these islands with Brexit, Scottish independence and English nationalism, it's incumbent on all strands of political thinking to at least have a conversation about what the future looks like," he said.

He said a border poll would be the "last thing you do".

"The first thing is to do the work," he said.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, whose Fianna Fáil party is in a partnership with the SDLP, has described Sinn Féin calls for a referendum on a united Ireland as divisive.

Mr Eastwood said concurrent referenda in Northern Ireland and the Republic was "(former SDLP leader) John Hume's idea" but that now was not the time.

"A border poll is going to happen; it should happen; I want it to happen – but I don't want it to happen tomorrow because I actually wouldn't mind winning it," he said.

"We have to get out of this false debate about when a border poll happens and instead focus on how we win it and how we make everybody feel comfortable."

The Foyle MP defended his recent description of Sinn Féin as "toxic to unionists" saying his assessment was "self evident".

"We've been quietly speaking to people from a unionist perspective for quite a while and they are open to a conversation yet they seem to have a problem when Sinn Féin take the lead – and it's a problem for nationalism if that's the case," he said.

He said Sinn Féin did have a role to play in building a shared Ireland.

The SDLP leader said he was hopeful political unionism would engage with the commission, especially on issues such as "protections for British identity in the 26 counties".

"I've always found if you're straight with people and up front then you can have an honest conversation," he said.

"This is not about pretending we're not Irish nationalists but we're open to discussion about what it would look like."

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