DUBLIN — Ireland will not pursue a referendum on Irish unity for the next five years because this would needlessly stoke tensions with Northern Ireland’s protestants, Prime Minister Micheál Martin said Thursday.
Martin made the declaration as he launched “Shared Island,” his government’s flagship program for improving relations and ties with Northern Ireland. It commits the Republic of Ireland to invest €500 million in cross-border infrastructure in the coming five years – the first time that southern taxpayers would invest significantly in projects north of the border.
He said staging a so-called “border poll” on uniting Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic “would be too divisive.”
Rules for a border poll are included in the 1998 Good Friday peace accord for Northern Ireland in a nod to the U.K. region’s Irish nationalists, led by Sinn Féin. That party is part of Northern Ireland’s cross-community government but leads the opposition in Dublin, where Fianna Fáil party leader Martin has been prime minister since July.
During the Shared Island launch at Dublin Castle, Martin fielded calls from several Northern Ireland-based activists and academics. Some asked why he wouldn’t support an all-island vote for unity, given that 56 percent of Northern Ireland voters rejected Brexit in the U.K.’s 2016 referendum. Voting for unity, they argued, would give the north’s pro-European majority a straight path back to EU membership.
“I took a clear view once Brexit happened, it should not be a catalyst for something like a border poll. I thought that would be too divisive and would only exacerbate the tensions there because of Brexit itself,” Martin said.
He said the Shared Island program would promote an “evolutionary pathway” of intensified cooperation between the two parts of Ireland on transport, health, education and culture.
“My main responsibility right now is to make sure that we land Brexit, warts and all – and I don’t approve of Brexit – that we land it in as sensible a landing zone as we can for the benefit of everybody on the island, the U.K. and Europe,” he said.
Pursuing a vote on Irish unity in the post-Brexit landscape “would be hugely problematic,” he said, adding: “For the next five years, a border poll is not on our agenda. Some people don’t like that.”
Ireland had committed to investing in Northern Ireland infrastructure as part of the 1998 accord. But that investment never happened, being formally withdrawn at the start of Ireland’s fiscal crisis a decade later as the state faced a property crash and international bailout.
Projects long on hold include a motorway for the predominantly Catholic west of Ireland and a border-spanning bridge across Carlingford Lough.
“For many, many years now since the Good Friday Agreement, many cross-border projects have been discussed,” Martin said. “We want to match the rhetoric, to match the ambition, with real resources to get results.”
Martin said he discussed these plans with U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson during an August 2019 summit in Hillsborough, Northern Ireland. He said Johnson pledged “to more than match” funds committed by Ireland.
“Boris Johnson is an ambitious prime minister and he does see the big picture very often,” Martin said. “And I have no doubt he will want to embrace this Shared Island concept and work with us to drive forward the agenda.”