By Amanda Ferguson
Belfast (Reuters) – The leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland said the Dublin government must start planning for the possibilty of a referendum that could result in a united Ireland.
Speaking to Reuters ahead of May 5 local elections in the British-run province that could see the nationalist party become the largest in the devolved government for the first time, Michelle O’Neill said she was not “fixated on dates” for the referendum.
But people “know constitutional change is coming” and it was irresponsible of Dublin to “not to be planning at this point”. It could take place before the end of this decade, she said.
Under Northern Ireland’s 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, which largely ended decades of violence between mainly Catholic nationalists seeking to merge with Ireland and Protestant unionists who want to remain part of the United Kingdom, the British government can call a referendum on Irish reunification if a “yes” majority looks likely.
“I think the Irish government’s focus needs to be on planning for constitutional change. There must be a citizen’s assembly,” she said.
“We have to have the healthy conversation around what the all-island health service will look like, what does education look like, what does the economy look like.”
Britain’s departure from the European Union has also raised questions about Northern Ireland’s future and its border with EU member Ireland.
O’Neill said that although the prospect of a referendum was a talking point on the doorsteps, people were also very concerned about the cost of living and the crisis in the health service.
“I don’t see any contradiction in working towards that constitutional change and trying to convince people of something better while also being in the Executive and working with others to deliver on the day to day public services the public want to be focused on.”
A recent poll by The Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool/The Irish News put support for the party at 27%, extending its lead over the Democratic Unionist Party to almost seven points.
(Writing by Graham Fahy; Editing by Angus MacSwan)