The Irish and British governments have been urged to start planning for a unity referendum after a new poll claimed a slight majority of people living in Northern Ireland now favour joining a united Ireland.
Sinn Féin’s northern leader Michelle O’Neill made the call after the latest Lord Ashcroft poll said 46% of people in Northern Ireland would choose to join the Republic compared to 45% who want to remain part of the UK.
According to the poll by Lord Ashcroft — a former Conservative party peer who has been a key public surveyor over the past decade — out of more than 1,000 people questioned in recent weeks, a slight majority now favour a united Ireland.
Asked for their preference “in the event of a referendum on whether or not Northern Ireland should remain part of the UK”, the poll found 46% would rather join the Republic while 45% would prefer to stay in the UK — with the figures rising to 51% and 49% when “don’t knows” were excluded.
The over-65s was the only age group in the poll with a clear majority for staying in the union (55% to 34%), while 45-64s divided evenly, and a majority of those aged from 18-44 said they would vote for unification.
In a speech to party members at Sinn Féin’s annual think-in, Ms O’Neill said officials can no longer “behave in an ostrich mentality with their head in the sand” over the issue.
She said Irish unity “is the ultimate solution” to Brexit, adding that the DUP has sold out power-sharing for “short-lived influence” in Britain.
Meanwhile, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald urged Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fáil leader Micheal Martin to agree a specific election date in a bid to limit any Brexit fallout damage.
Ms McDonald said: “It would logically follow that they might between them decide the date” as Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are “in government together”, just 24 hours after Mr Martin ruled out the possible move “at this stage”.
Ms McDonald separately joked “we’re a highly normal” party after being asked to comment on the decision by John O’Dowd to contest Michelle O’Neill’s position as deputy leader.
Moments later, the Sinn Féin leader was asked about a €1.6m donation to the party in the will of a now deceased mechanic called William Hampton, who lived in Wales.
Asked for further details on the transaction, Ms McDonald said the money was “bequeathed in accordance with all of the rules”. adding she believes Mr Hampton was making “a very robust statement against the political establishment”.“I think Billy was a rebel, a rebel with a cause,” she said.