By Padraic Halpin
DUBLIN (Reuters) – Irish nationalists Sinn Fein will withhold support for the government after a Feb. 8 election without a commitment to immediately start planning for a referendum on the unification of Ireland, its leader said on Tuesday.
The governing Fine Gael and main opposition Fianna Fail, the favorites to lead the next government, both refuse to govern with Sinn Fein, the former political arm of the Irish Republican Army (IRA) that fought British rule of Northern Ireland before a 1998 peace deal.
However opinion polls suggest Sinn Fein is set to strengthen its position as the third largest party and close the gap on the two bigger ones. Sinn Fein says it is willing to form a coalition with either party and that it offers the only viable alternative to another minority government.
Under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that mostly ended three decades of violence between Catholic nationalists seeking union with Ireland and Protestant unionists who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom, Britain’s minister for the region can call a referendum if it appears likely it would pass.
A vote would also be required in the Irish Republic. In its election manifesto, Sinn Fein said it wanted to establish a parliamentary committee and citizens assembly to plan for Irish unity and seek to secure a referendum within five years.
“Of course for us that is a core issue, I cannot see a situation in which Sinn Fein would be in government without that work being undertaken,” Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald told a news conference on Tuesday.
“Let’s be clear about it – the calling of such a referendum in the real politik will be made at 10 Downing Street and that call, I believe, will only be made when Dublin is proactively planning for unification and looking for that referendum.”
While a Northern Ireland withdrawal from the United Kingdom remains a distant prospect according to opinion polls, Britain’s exit from the EU has increased calls for unity given that the province voted 56%-44% to remain in Europe in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Both Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have said they would ultimately like to see the unification of the island, which was partitioned almost a century ago, but now is not the time.
Fianna Fail has pledged to start preparations on how Dublin should approach a possible unification vote but not the kind of detailed preparations proposed by Sinn Fein, whom Fianna Fail say are exploiting the issue for short-term gain.
(Editing by Giles Elgood)