The Irish News view: Unity debate can’t be silenced just because it perturbs unionists

Michelle O’Neill has made it clear that ‘legitimate aspirations’ can be pursued while making sure powersharing at Stormont delivers

Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O'Neill with party president Mary Lou McDonald in the office of the first minister at Stormont
Stormont Assembly Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O'Neill with party president Mary Lou McDonald in the office of the first minister at Stormont (Liam McBurney/Liam McBurney/PA Wire)

Just a few short days after the positivity around its resuscitation, a familiar fault-line has already started to open up at Stormont over a border poll.

As the north’s first republican first minister, it is to be fully expected that Michelle O’Neill will from time to time emphasise her unwavering desire to see a united Ireland. Nor should it surprise anyone if unionist leaders push against that.

With a measure of political maturity and mutual respect this need not destabilise the new Executive as it gets to grip with its daunting in-tray and the wreckage of two years of DUP boycott.

Indeed, both Ms O’Neill and Deputy First Minister Emma Little-Pengelly have spoken about the importance of working together despite their different constitutional outlooks.

It is troubling, however, that this dead-end British government has in its Safeguarding the Union deal with the DUP joined so resolutely with the unionist position alone.

For example, apparently relying upon nothing more than “recent polling”, the command paper boldly predicts that the conditions for a border poll are unlikely to be objectively met “for decades to come”.

There are many other sections of the document, which is essentially a salve to unionist insecurity, that are remarkably – worryingly, even – one-sided. The government will, for example, support outreach and education in the United States to strengthen understanding “of the different traditions in Northern Ireland”, but singles out “Ulster Scots heritage”.

On Sunday, Ms O’Neill was asked about Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald’s comments that unity is “within touching distance”. We are entering a “decade of opportunity”, the First Minister said, where all sorts of change seems possible.

But she was also at pains to stress that it was possible to do two things at once: “We can have powersharing, we can make it stable, we can work together every day in terms of public services while we also pursue our equally legitimate aspirations.”

On the unionist side, everyone from Sir Jeffrey Donaldson to Prime Minister Rishi Sunak criticised Ms O’Neill for having the audacity to venture near the unity question.

That is not a sustainable position for a place which can only work where legitimate constitutional aspirations are able to be expressed and debated.

Those who wish to remain in the UK must be able to make their arguments. But voices for Irish unity will not be silenced just because it might perturb some unionists.