Northern Ireland news

Relationships in Northern Ireland ‘more important than unity poll at this time', Simon Coveney says

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney. Picture by David Young/PA Wire
Michelle Devane and Cate McCurry, PA

The priority in Northern Ireland must be on mending relationships and not planning for a border poll, Ireland’s Foreign Affairs Minister has said.

Simon Coveney said there is a “huge problem” with trust in the north and work has to be done first to “settle” the protocol issue and ensure the Stormont institutions are functioning.

“The focus for now in Northern Ireland has got to be on relationships,” Mr Coveney told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland programme.

“We have a new British Prime Minister. We have a new Secretary of State. We have a new Deputy Secretary of State, if you like, a new Foreign Minister in Britain.

“We have a lot of work to do in the context of trying to settle the Northern Ireland Protocol issue.

“We have to listen to unionism as well as, of course, to everybody else in Northern Ireland, and we have to try to make sure that the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are functioning again because they have not been functioning for quite some time.”

Mr Coveney’s comments come after census figures showed Catholics outnumber Protestants in Northern Ireland for the first time since the partition of the island.

The Census 2021 figures, published yesterday, showed that 45.7% of the region’s population said they were either Catholic or brought up as a Catholic.

Mr Coveney said nobody involved in the politics of Northern Ireland who has seen “how things are changing were surprised by that census result”.

Asked about the timing of a potential border poll, he added: “The priority for now has got to be on getting the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement functioning again.

“Next year, we will recognise 25 years since the Good Friday Agreement was agreed. Of course, we have to plan for a potential change in the future and we have to respect different perspectives in relation to what that change might look like, but if we can’t build relationships, it’s very hard to to plan for that in a way that is fully inclusive.”

“At the moment there is a huge problem with trust in Northern Ireland, between different political parties and between parties and the two governments. And those relationships have got to be mended. And then of course, we have to plan for the future.”

However, Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty said there is a responsibility on government and elected politicians to “recognise” that change is happening.

The Donegal TD said there is an onus on those in politics to plan for the future.

“We can see the trend and the change that has taken place in the North, but we can actually see that change taking place right across the island of Ireland and that desire for change,” Mr Doherty told RTE.

“There is an onus on all of us in politics to plan for the future. So yes, there’s an immediate responsibility on the DUP to get back into the Executive, to start delivering, but there’s a responsibility on all of us to recognise that change is happening, that we need to plan for that change and that means that the government needs to take a lead in relation to what that looks like.”

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald previously said a referendum on a united Ireland could be held within the next five to 10 years.

Asked if he believes a border poll is likely in the next 10 years, Mr Doherty claimed there is a “desire” for constitutional change.

“You can see the trends that are happening there. More and more people are looking for change,” he added.

“More and more people want to be back in Europe, more and more people in terms of opinion polls are showing a desire for constitutional change.

“Therefore, there is a responsibility on us to actually map out what that looks like.

“That’s why we’re calling on the government to bring forward a Citizens Assembly and a paper on Irish unity.”

Northern Ireland news