Northern Ireland

Brexit: Irresponsible not to plan border vote, says Sinn Féin leader

Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald and vice-president Michelle O'Neill Image copyright PA
Image caption "Now is the time" for an Irish border poll, says Mary Lou McDonald (left)

It is "irresponsible" for the Irish government to say a border poll should not be held at the moment due to uncertainty about Brexit, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald has said.

She said the Irish government should urgently convene a forum to plan for Irish reunification.

She was speaking at a Beyond Brexit event in Belfast, looking at Ireland's future after the UK leaves the EU.

About 1,600 people attended, including Irish politicians and academics.

Sinn Féin has previously said that if there is a no-deal Brexit, then the Northern Ireland secretary should immediately call a border poll.

Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Leo Varadkar has said a number of times that a border poll right now would be "disruptive".

'Nationalists' job to win vote'

On Saturday, Mrs McDonald said "now is the time" for one to take place.

"History is unfolding - the next chapter is being written," she said.

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Media captionUnity referendum 'not right' at this time - Ireland's Education Minister Joe McHugh

"The responsible thing to do is to play a part in shaping change and engage in the debate that is under way.

"I want to, again, challenge the government in Dublin to convene a forum to begin the planning for Irish unity."

Mrs McDonald also said that "regardless of Brexit there will be a unity referendum".

She said it was the job of Irish nationalists to secure it and to win it.

But Ireland's Education Minister, Joe McHugh, told BBC News NI the timing was not right.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood told the conference that "meaningful reconciliation between the peoples of this island must remain our priority", as the centenary of Northern Ireland approaches.

"Unionism should have nothing to fear in a conversation based on persuasion and consent," he said.

"We all have a duty to tell our unionist neighbours, 'You belong to this place every bit as much as I do', therefore you have the very same right to shape the future of this island.

"My appeal to unionism is this; try to convince us of your vision for the future and we'll try to convince you of ours, and then in time let the people decide."

The Beyond Brexit event has been accused of snubbing unionists because no high-profile unionists were invited to be on the panel or speak at the event.

The organisers have rejected the claims and said it was about finding a way for Irish nationalists to discuss a path ahead before reaching out to engage with unionists.

The group behind the event is made up of civic nationalists who sent letters to the Irish government in 2017 and 2018, concerned about Brexit and the impact it would have on the rights of Irish citizens.

Image caption A protest was held against Brexit near Newry on Saturday

Meanwhile, several hundred people staged a protest against Brexit on the Northern Ireland border near Newry.

A wall was built across a border road and mock Army checkpoints were put in place to symbolise the protesters' opposition to a hard border.

The demonstration was the latest protest by the group, Border Communities Against Brexit.

The organisers said they wanted to send an "unmistakable signal" that imposing border infrastructure would not be tolerated by local people.

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