Northern Ireland news

Civic nationalism welcomes Brandon Lewis's acknowledgement of a conversation about the north's constitutional future

Brandon Lewis acknowledged that there should be a conversation about the north's constitutional future

BRANDON Lewis's acknowledgement that there should be a conversation about the north's constitutional future has been welcomed by civic nationalist group Ireland's Future.

The secretary of state said on BBC's Question Time that he agreed with Michelle O'Neill and the DUP's Gavin Robinson that it was right to "debate and discuss" the merits of constitutional change.

Ms O'Neill told last Thursday's programme it was important not to "fall into the trap of Brexit" by failing to plan ahead of a referendum.

She also made reference to Mr Robinson, who told The Irish News that his namesake and former party leader Peter Robinson was "absolutely right" to urge unionism to ready itself for a border poll.

Mr Lewis rejected a contributor's assertion that Brexit had made the case for a unity referendum more compelling and he said he did not agree with former party colleague George Osborne, who last week wrote that Northern Ireland was "heading for the exit door" of the UK.

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However, the secretary of state said he agreed with the deputy first minister that "nobody should be afraid of having a conversation".

"It's right that we debate and discuss these things, particularly in the centenary year," he said.

"Northern Ireland's got so much to offer around the world."

While Mr Lewis made no direct reference to a border poll, he was asked specifically by presenter Fiona Bruce if "you welcome a conversation about a united Ireland" and he did not rebuff the question, saying he "respected everybody".

The secretary of state said the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement meant "we can have these debates in a proper way".

The Irish News asked the Northern Ireland Office to clarify and elaborate on what Mr Lewis had said but it declined to comment further.

But his remarks were welcomed by Ireland’s Future secretary Niall Murphy, who said they were "yet another step change that should not be ignored".

"The British secretary of state joins a growing number of people, including key figures in political unionism such as Peter Robinson, Gavin Robinson and Gregory Campbell, who have all said it is important to have this conversation," he said.

"The significance of this step change from the British government should not be lost on the current Dublin government."

Mr Murphy said Dublin needed to "take heed of the fast moving and quickly evolving conversation regarding Irish unity" and that the British government needed to outline its proposed criteria for a referendum.

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