Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster has accused Sinn Fein of rowing back on suggesting an Irish unity poll should not be held during Brexit uncertainty.
Mrs Foster’s was speaking after Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald insisted her party wanted a referendum “as soon as possible”, claiming the “chaos of the Tory Brexit” should not delay a vote on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status.
Mrs McDonald’s remarks came less than 24 hours after she said she would prefer not to hold a unity vote in the context of a “crash or very hard Brexit”, arguing it would be the wrong “climate” for such a debate.
Claiming the republican party had changed stance overnight, Mrs Foster insisted people in Northern Ireland were more interested in seeing powersharing restored than participating in a referendum on reunification.
The recent round of political exchanges on Irish unity was sparked last Friday when former DUP first minister Peter Robinson said that while he did not think a united Ireland was likely, unionists should prepare for such an outcome.
Mrs Foster did not refer to those controversial remarks as she entered the debate on Tuesday, instead focusing on Sinn Fein’s contributions.
“Whilst there have been plenty of republican soundbites about a border poll, one interview exposed that Sinn Fein has no answers to basic questions about a united Ireland, such as what happens to our free-at-point-of-need health system,” she said.
“Indeed, within 24 hours of that interview, the Sinn Fein leadership is rowing back from their ‘not yet’ position.
“As tempting as calling Sinn Fein’s bluff might be, the principle of consent is in place and should be respected. Few dispute there is a clear majority in favour of staying within the United Kingdom, but it would be foolish to think that families across the country are itching for a destabilising border poll.”
Mrs Foster said that in the absence of devolution her party was focused on using its influence on the Conservative Government at Westminster to deliver on public services in Northern Ireland.
“I have no objection to extoling the merits of the union,” she added.
“I have done so and will continue to do so. Unionism needs to be open and welcoming. Ultimately, if people are comfortable living, working and raising their families in a Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom, they will be less inclined to ever vote to leave it.”
In Monday’s interview with the Press Association, Mrs McDonald suggested a border poll question should be put to one side until the “dangers” posed by Brexit are mitigated.
While indicating that Sinn Fein still wanted a vote within five years, she told PA the first job was dealing with the fallout from Brexit in a “clear headed and non-party political” way.
“It’s very important when we come to addressing the issue of partition we do it in the best possible climate and we do it in a way that maximises consent,” she said.
“It is not my preferred option or our preferred option that we deal with the issue of Irish unity in a climate that is unsteady or unstable or chaotic, in other words in the context of a crash Brexit or a very hard Brexit.
“It is my strong preference that we have sequencing that firstly delivers a level of economic and social certainty, in as much we can be certain, and stability and from that base we then continue the conversation about Irish unity.”
On Tuesday, the Sinn Fein president repeated her concerns about conducting a campaign amid Brexit uncertainty and the “shadow of Tory game-playing”.
But she added: “If the Tories continue to pursue a negotiation stance that can only lead to a crash Brexit, the British Government will have to put the question on Irish unity to the people in a referendum.
“The Irish Government must also act as a driver and persuader for Irish unity. It must be proactive in preparing now for the economic, social and political realities of unity.
“Irish unity makes sense. It has always made sense. Brexit is simply the latest political mess to underline that fact.
“The appetite for the unity debate is growing every day. Sinn Fein wants to see a referendum as soon as possible. We want to build maximum consensus for unity and win that referendum.”