Shadow minister’s border poll remarks alarm Northern Ireland’s unionists

Labour’s Peter Kyle says he would be prepared to call referendum on Irish unity if certain conditions were met

Northern Ireland unionists have expressed alarm after the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Peter Kyle, said he would be prepared to call a referendum on Irish unity if certain conditions were met.

Kyle would set out the criteria for calling a border poll if Labour were in power, he told the BBC’s Sunday Politics show at his party’s conference.

“If the circumstances emerge as set out in the Good Friday agreement, I as secretary of state, would not play games. I would call the border poll,” he said. “I am saying I am not going to be a barrier if the circumstances emerge.”

Under the 1998 agreement, a secretary of state must call a referendum if it appears likely a majority of those voting would want the region to leave the UK – but the agreement does not specify the criteria, a vagueness that the UK government and unionists have been keen to maintain.

The Irish government, Sinn Féin and the Social Democratic and Labour party (SDLP) have pushed for clarity on the criteria, which would lay out the steps needed for a vote that could abolish the state of Northern Ireland and unify the island.

Kyle said Sinn Féin’s emergence as the biggest party in Northern Ireland and last week’s census results, which showed Catholics outnumbering Protestants, did not suffice. “We’re not even in that circumstance yet, so when we move towards the point where those circumstances set out in the Good Friday agreement start to emerge and it becomes a priority for the people of Northern Ireland, I will act,” he said.

On Monday the Ulster Unionist party (UUP) leader, Doug Beattie, criticised the comments as an “unhelpful and ill-timed” distraction from the cost of living crisis and other problems facing Northern Ireland.

The pro-union Belfast News Letter newspaper said the Labour politician had muddied the waters on a border poll and that it was essential any UK government kept wide discretion. It said: “It is unfortunate that Mr Kyle has chosen this time to give succour to those who want to shatter the UK.”

The Sinn Féin MP Chris Hazzard welcomed Kyle’s comments as recognition that the current position was “unsustainable”. “It’s having your head in the sand simply to deny the fact that constitutional change is coming, that people are talking about this, civic society and political parties and all around us,” the South Down MP said.

The SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, called for a serious debate about unity. “We need to convince people, we need to talk to people over the next number of years and make sure they can feel comfortable with the change that we are proposing.”


Rory Carroll Ireland correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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