DThe Sinn Fein party leader, Mary Lou McDonald, and the new Northern Irish government leader, Michelle O'Neill, who also belongs to this Catholic-nationalist party, are aiming for referendums in Northern Ireland and Ireland on state unity “within the next decade”. The two politicians announced on Thursday that preparations for the referendums should begin “immediately”.
In Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein replaced the Protestant-Unionist DUP as the strongest party for the first time in the regional assembly election in May 2022 and is therefore entitled to the office of First Minister in the Belfast regional government, although a government was only formed last week after a blockade that lasted almost two years could be formed. According to surveys, Sinn Fein would also be the strongest party in the Republic of Ireland with a voter share of around 30 percent. The next regular elections in the republic will take place in March next year.
McDonald and O'Neill formulate their party's claim to unification in general terms: There is a popular desire for change in both parts of the island. Northern Ireland was founded 100 years ago with a “built-in majority for the Unionists”, said the Sinn Fein party leader, but this eternal majority has now disappeared. There is also a “powerful mood” for change in the Republic of Ireland. The “debate about the future of the country has begun,” she said.
Planned, peaceful, orderly, democratic and constitutional
The work on the referendums and the discussions about the structure of Irish reunification must be planned, peaceful, orderly, democratic and constitutional, said McDonald. They would have to reach and include everyone. She cited inclusive consultation rounds organized by the Irish government to discuss the effects of Brexit as a model.
At that time, the unionist parties in the north refused to take part; But their constituents, unionist farmers or entrepreneurs, showed up to discuss the changes in economic conditions. The British government must also be involved in discussions about Ireland's future. There have been repeated inquiries to Westminster about the circumstances under which a referendum could be held in the North, but no response from London yet.
McDonald acknowledged that current opinion polls only show majorities in favor of reunification in the Republic of Ireland, but not in the north. But that will change now that there is a head of government in Belfast who has the will to move the unification forward and says, “let’s talk about how this could work”. The Sinn Fein leader said “when a government takes a step like this, when something becomes a real possibility”, then the momentum changes. According to the Northern Ireland regional government's business minister, John Finucane, who is also a member of Sinn Fein, Great Britain's exit from the EU made a unification of Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland more likely.