Michelle O’Neill’s call for a referendum on the Unity of Ireland could not have come at a worse time. In a period of great uncertainty and instability in both Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom itself, to make a decision as significant as this would only intensify current concerns and problems, to the detriment of the public.
O’Neill emphasised that Brexit would have catastrophic consequences for Northern Ireland, and reinforced the necessity of a border poll before the United Kingdom begins the process of exiting the EU.
The Sinn Fein leader’s statement comes following Nicola Sturgeon’s equally ill-timed call for a second Scottish independence referendum, and is not the topic that should be consuming British politics at the moment. Although some may argue that neither Northern Ireland nor Scotland voted for Brexit, and they therefore deserve the right to remain in the European Union, an emphasis on the discussion of complete devolution would be severely damaging to the smooth emergence of all parties from the Brexit negotiations.
The Northern Irish public deserve the right to be fully aware of what a post-Brexit future will hold for the country before they consider such a monumental movement. The debate over the outcome of Brexit is one which Northern Ireland deserves to be wholly part of, and to do so it must have a united voice in British politics.
It is evident that a division of the United Kingdom should not be on the cards at this stage. As the country commences talks on Brexit, the main focus of political debate should be on obtaining as beneficial a deal with Europe as possible. Now is not the time to be focused on our own internal divisions.
The current political situation in Northern Ireland is not conducive to the introduction of a debate on Irish unity. With the recent elections following the collapse of the coalition between the DUP and Sinn Fein still a fresh memory, it is evident that the Northern Irish Assembly is in no fit state to initiate the decision on the future of the country. Stability needs to be established within the Northern Irish government before such prodigious movements can be made.
However, that is not to say that Northern Ireland does not deserve the right to decide their future. Scotland have already had an independence referendum; thus, it would be unfair to deny Northern Ireland this right. However, it would not be sensible to engage with this debate at the present moment. Britain needs to solidify its position together, before it can decide if its future lies apart.
On the other hand, it is evident from polls conducted in recent years, that there is no strong feeling within Northern Ireland for the need to break from the United Kingdom and unite with the Republic of Ireland.
Therefore, it is arguable that a referendum would merely provide unnecessary disruption and disunity. Yes, a referendum was put on the cards in the Good Friday agreement, but is now really the time?
Clearly, as is also shown in the call for a second referendum on Scottish independence, the government in Westminster must take notice of the needs of all areas of the United Kingdom in the ensuing Brexit negotiations. If we are to maintain a strong and cohesive position in relation to Europe, we must stand together and provide a united front for negotiations. To divide the United Kingdom in the current climate would be detrimental to our chances of obtaining as good a Brexit deal as is possible.
Image: Sinn Féin