O’Neill envisages Irish unity referendum within decade

Michelle O'Neill.
Michelle O'Neill. Author: Sinn Féin
Michelle O’Neill has made history by becoming the first Irish nationalist leader to head a Northern Ireland government. In her first interview after her election, the Sinn Féin leader answered “yes” to whether she sees a reunification referendum “within the next 10 years.”

Northern Ireland regained its government on 3 February, after being ruled by civil servants since 2022. In May of that year, Sinn Féin won the Northern Irish election, but the main unionist party, the DUP, refused to form a government. The Northern Irish political system legally requires the main parties to be part of the executive (this is known as a “compulsory coalition”). If one of these parties does not participate, no government can be formed.
The DUP’s reason for not joining the government was the signing of the Northern Ireland Protocol between the UK and the EU. The protocol left Northern Ireland inside the European common market, despite the UK leaving the EU. That established de facto customs between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK from 2021. For the DUP, this represented an intolerable break in British unity.

Last week, however, the DUP agreed to form a government after receiving a promise from the UK government of new legislation aimed at strengthening ties between the UK and Northern Ireland. Thus, the unionists unblocked the formation of the Northern Ireland Executive, which is now made up of four Sinn Féin ministers, three from the DUP, two from the Alliance Party (liberal, not officially attached to any community) and one from the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). It will be headed by O’Neill as first minister and Emma Little-Pengelly (DUP) as deputy first minister. Both positions have equal political power, although the position of prime minister enjoys wider recognition.

This executive has the immediate challenge of reviving Northern Ireland’s government system. One thing all Northern Ireland’s parties, whether Irish or British nationalist, agree on is that more funding is needed for public services. Ministers in the newly formed government have written to UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, calling on him to increase the budget for Northern Ireland. This is not least to meet schools and hospitals’ needs.

Disagreement over referendum

The new government’s programme does not call for a referendum on reunification with the Republic of Ireland. This has not prevented O’Neill from indirectly referencing the issue. In an interview on Sky News, she said that it is possible to govern Northern Ireland in a stable way and, at the same time, move towards the goals of Irish republicanism. Asked whether she saw the option of a referendum in the next 10 years, the newly appointed first minister replied “yes”. She said that the next 10 years are “the decade of opportunity” and argued that the very fact that she is first minister demonstrates the change taking place in Northern Irish society.

O’Neill’s comments were responded to by DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, who pointed out that opinion polls in Northern Ireland show that “at least 60% of people support the union [of the UK].” Donaldson says a referendum would be “divisive” and is not an issue that concerns citizens.

According to the most recent (2022) North Ireland Life & Times Survey, conducted by the Universities of Ulster and Queen’s Belfast, 35% of the Northern Irish public believe that Northern Ireland should be reunited with the Republic of Ireland, while 47% reject it. 10% are undecided.

Under the Good Friday Agreement (1998), the UK Secretary of State has the power to greenlight a referendum on Irish unity if, when the time comes, it seems likely to him or her that a majority of voters would support reunification with the Republic. The current Secretary of State is Chris Heaton-Harris, a member of the Conservative Party, which is opposed to any new referendum—neither in Northern Ireland nor in Scotland. Heaton-Harris says conditions are not met for a border poll. In fact, the UK politician predicts the vote will not happen in his lifetime. Heaton-Harris is 56 years old.