The Government intends to use the possibility of a future united Ireland referendum as a bargaining tool to secure a special post-Brexit deal.
Government sources confirmed the plan of action last night after a 48-hour period in which Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin raised the prospect of border poll in the future.
Speaking at the MacGill summer school in the Glenties, Co Donegal, on Sunday and Monday, the two rival leaders openly stated a united Ireland referendum could now take place in the near future due to the fact Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU.
However, while the comments have led to a blunt rebuke from Unionist figures, it is understood the Government’s real intention is to increase pressure on the EU to ensure Ireland is given special post-Brexit supports.
During a bilateral meeting in Berlin last week, German chancellor Angela Merkel appeared to rule out any prospect of preferential treatment on issues such as financial aid and again suggesting a “hard border” may be needed between the north and south.
However, it is understood Mr Kenny has not given up on a deal being struck, and is prepared to use the “unique selling point” of the border issue and the difficulties a future referendum could cause to force EU officials to re-think their position.
Mr Kenny’s suggestion of a possible poll has been branded pathetic and deliberately mischievous by Ian Paisley Jnr.
He said he “expected better” from Mr Kenny. Referring to recent intense scrutiny of his leadership of the Fine Gael, the Democratic Unionist MP said the Taoiseach’s time would be better served concentrating on his own future.
“It’s quite pathetic — one would have expected better from him,” said Mr Paisley.
Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams said the debate on a unity vote was a chance to look at relations on the island. “You are never going to get a border poll unless the Irish Government is for it,” he said.
“The Taoiseach’s language was qualified insofar as he said it won’t happen at this time, that’s fair enough, the fact is he has raised the concept and he has said he is going to make this part of the Brexit negotiations and that is good.”
Under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the power to call a border poll rests with the Northern Ireland secretary of state. But the accord stipulates that such a vote can only be called if there is evidence of a clear shift of public opinion in favour of Irish unity in Northern Ireland.
The issue of a poll has been the subject of renewed debate after Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU in the face of the UK’s decision to leave.
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire has insisted the referendum outcome did not provide grounds for triggering a vote on Irish unity.
Ulster Unionist Assembly member Jenny Palmer described Mr Kenny’s comments as “much ado about nothing”.
“Everyone who approaches the border poll issue with an ounce of sense recognises, as the Taoiseach did yesterday, that there has to be evidence that a majority is likely to vote to change our constitutional position before a border poll can be triggered,” she said.
“The bottom line is that the evidence simply does not exist.”
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