May re­jects bor­der poll amid doubts at out­come

Belfast Telegraph - - POLITICS - BY JONATHAN BELL

THE Prime Min­is­ter was forced into rul­ing out a bor­der poll yes­ter­day af­ter re­ports that she had ex­pressed doubts over North­ern Ire­land’s fu­ture in the UK af­ter a ref­er­en­dum on a united Ire­land.

The Times re­ported that there had been a con­fronta­tion be­tween Theresa May and Brex­i­teer Ja­cob Rees-Mogg af­ter he sug­gested main­tain­ing an open bor­der dur­ing brief­ings aimed at unit­ing the party ahead of cru­cial Brexit talks.

Mrs May re­port­edly told him that EU rules would oblige Ire- land to con­struct bor­der in­fra­struc­ture to pro­tect the sin­gle mar­ket, and warned against any move that might anger mod­er­ate na­tion­al­ists in North­ern Ire­land.

Mr Rees-Mogg ex­pressed “no doubt” North­ern Ire­land would re­main within the UK af­ter any bor­der poll.

“I would not be as confident as you,” the Prime Min­is­ter (right) is re­ported to have re­sponded.

“That’s not a risk I’m pre­pared to take. We can­not be confident on the pol­i­tics of that sit­u­a­tion, on how it plays out.”

The Good Fri­day Agree­ment states there should be a bor­der poll if the Sec­re­tary of State be­lieves there might be a ma­jor­ity in favour of uni­fi­ca­tion. Sinn Fein said Mrs May’s com­ments in­di­cated the cir­cum­stances were right for a bor­der poll.

Its North­ern leader, Michelle O’Neill, blasted the Prime Min­is­ter for “deny­ing the peo­ple of Ire­land the demo­cratic en­ti­tle­ment to de­cide their own con­sti­tu­tional fu­ture”.

How­ever, the SDLP said more work needed to be done on en­cour­ag­ing union­ists to ac­cept the idea. Party leader Colum East­wood en­cour­aged na­tion­al­ists to en­gage with union­ists.

“So when that day comes, it is not a day of celebration for one half of the com­mu­nity and a day of re­morse for the other, but rather a step towards rec­on­cil­i­a­tion to­gether, where all communities feel at home in a new in­clu­sive Ire­land,” he said.

The UUP re­jected claims there was any de­sire for a bor­der poll.

Its leader Robin Swann said: “We should be focusing on how to make North­ern Ire­land work for the ben­e­fit of all the peo­ple who live here, rather than try­ing to open up a de­bate that can only lead to more divi­sion and un­cer­tainty, es­pe­cially where the out­come is a fore­gone con­clu­sion.”

Al­liance MLA Stephen Farry said that while Brexit posed a “mas­sive threat to the co­he­sion of North­ern Ire­land... the pri­or­ity must be to agree a spe­cial deal for North­ern Ire­land to mit­i­gate the risks and achieve the max­i­mum cross-com­mu­nity support for such a prag­matic way for­ward”.

Asked if Mrs May was confident union­ism would win an Ir­ish bor­der poll if it came to it, the Prime Min­is­ter’s of­fi­cial spokesper­son said: “The Government stead­fastly sup­ports the Belfast Agree­ment. It re­mains the North­ern Ire­land Sec­re­tary’s view that a ma­jor­ity of peo­ple in North­ern Ire­land con­tinue to support the cur­rent po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment, and that the cir­cum­stances re­quir­ing a bor­der poll are not sat­is­fied.”

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