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Unionist party pushes back against Irish unity referendum

DUP President Jeffrey Donaldson holds a copy of the ‘Safeguarding the Union’ agreement published by the U.K. government
| Photo Credit: Sriram Lakshman

The leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, pushed back against the assertion of Irish republicans from Sinn Fein that Northern Ireland would have a referendum on reunification with the Republic of Ireland before 2030.

“Well, look, how would you expect Sinn Fein  to react to a document that says ‘Safeguarding the Union’ and is coloured red, white and blue ?“ DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson told the foreign press in London as he held up a copy of the agreement with the UK government, whose cover had the same colour scheme as the Union Jack.

Following its publication on January 31, the DUP agreed to enter into a power-sharing agreement with Sinn Fein to govern Northern Ireland, bringing the devolved government back to life after a hiatus of two years. The DUP had quit the arrangement in 2022 , unhappy with post-Brexit trading arrangements between Northern Ireland and the thest of the U.K.

The new government, which came together on February 3, is led by the politically equal posts of First Minister (Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill) and Deputy First Minister (the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly) .

“Of course they’re going to talk about United Ireland  to reassure their base,” Mr Donaldson said, pointing out that Sinn Fein, while the largest party in Northern Ireland, gets less than 30% of the vote. In the last elections for the Assembly or Stormont, Sinn Fein beat the DUP by two seats, to get 27 seats with 29% vote share versus DUP’s 21.3%.

Mr. Donaldson, whose DUP party is unionist, or wanting to be part of the U.K., said the U.K. offered a “far more inclusive” context than a united Ireland could and that consistently it was only 30% of those surveyed in polls who were for Irish unification.

A December 2022 Ipsos poll for the Irish Times showed 27% of Northern Irelanders surveyed wanted to be part of a united Ireland, while 66% of those surveyed in Ireland wanted Northern Ireland to join their country.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to the island of Ireland after three decades of violent struggle, mandates that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, a British functionary, will call for a ‘border poll’ on Irish reunification if it is “likely” that the majority of those voting would vote for a united Ireland.

 Sinn Fein, formerly the political wing of the militant Irish Republican Army (IRA) has been polling ahead of other parties in Ireland. However,  its lead dipped to a three year low (28%) in an Irish Times/Ipsos poll last week.

“Challenge is something I embrace,” Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said last week in London, as she acknowledged her party would reflect on the poll numbers and work harder.

Mr Donaldson said he believed Northern Ireland would still be part of the U.K. in 25 years.

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