North in ‘united Ireland vote by 2016’

The North should hold a referendum on joining the Republic as early as 2016, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness has said.

In the party’s most explicit outlining of a vote timetable yet, the North’s deputy first minister says it is his ambition to see the referendum held during the next term of the Belfast Assembly.

“It just seems to me to be a sensible timing. It would be on the question of whether or not the people of the Six Counties wish to retain the link with what is described as the United Kingdom, or be part of a united Ireland. It could take place anytime between 2016 or 2020-21,” he said.

“I don’t see any reason whatsoever why that should not be considered.

“I think, in all probability, the people who have got the power to put that in place won’t even contemplate it this side of the next Assembly elections, which conceivably could be 2015 or 2016.”

The deputy first minister believes the Democratic Unionist Party can be persuaded to agree to such a dramatic move.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, the final say on when a referendum on the future of the North would be held rests with the British secretary of state.

The Nationalist government in Edinburgh has provoked a furious row with Downing St over its plans to hold a vote on Scotland leaving the UK in 2014.

Mr McGuinness does not think the financial and economic crash experienced by the Republic would put Northerners off voting to leave the UK.

“It’s a mistake to think people are going to decide their future on what has been a particularly disastrous period of the handling of the economy by the government in Dublin.

“People will make a decision on the potential that the reunification of Ireland can bring for them in terms of political stability and in terms of having economic levers in their own hands.”

Though population experts predict people from a Catholic background will form the majority in the North within a generation, Mr McGuinness said it was “too sectarian” to expect people to vote on strictly religious lines.

In a revealing and wide-ranging interview with the Irish Examiner, Mr McGuinness appears to downplay the significance of Bertie Ahern in the peace process, instead insisting Tony Blair was key to the Good Friday Agreement.

The Sinn Féin chief also markedly softens his stance towards Queen Elizabeth II, who he says has invited him to Buckingham Palace garden parties six times. He says her speech in Dublin Castle in May, when she stated that there were some things “we would wish had been done differently, or not at all” was a direct reference to the Bloody Sunday massacre, the 40th anniversary of which was marked yesterday.

Despite a sympathetic portrayal of the IRA’s ultimate hate figure, Margaret Thatcher, he says he hopes Meryl Streep wins an Oscar for her portrayal of the Iron Lady, as the actress was very “down to earth” when she visited the North.

And continuing his role as a peacemaker, Mr McGuinness accompanied First Minister Peter Robinson to the DUP leader’s first GAA match on Saturday, the Dr McKenna Cup football final between Tyrone and Derry.

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