January 23, 2013 4:13 pm

Northern Ireland mulls a ‘border poll’

The largest unionist party in Northern Ireland has said it may support Sinn Féin’s call for a poll on the province’s constitutional future as it could bolster the link with Britain rather than lead to a vote for a united Ireland.

The Democratic Unionist party said unionism had nothing to fear from a so-called “border poll”. But it criticised Sinn Féin for launching a new campaign on the issue because it could destabilise the fragile political situation in the province.

“In conversation yesterday with some senior members of my party, including the First Minister Peter Robinson, we did take a view that said: ‘Right, let’s have this border poll,’ ” said Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s enterprise minister.

“Be careful what you wish for is what I say to Sinn Féin because if a border poll happens today there will be a very, very clear majority of people in Northern Ireland who will say they want to remain in the United Kingdom,” she told BBC Radio Ulster.

Ms Foster said Sinn Féin was indulging in “fantasy politics”.

The idea of a border poll has gathered momentum among nationalists, following the announcement that there will be a referendum on Scottish independence in 2014. The forthcoming 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising in Dublin has also captured the imagination of Sinn Féin, the biggest nationalist party in Northern Ireland.

Last weekend, Gerry Adams, the Sinn Féin president, relaunched the party’s campaign to hold a border poll “to end partition”.

The DUP, which shares power with Sinn Féin in the Stormont executive, has previously opposed a referendum and pointed to polls showing strengthening support for the union.

Under the terms of the Good Friday peace agreement, the UK secretary of state can call a border poll when there is likely to be a vote that would change the constitutional status.

A spokeswoman for Theresa Villiers, the secretary of state, said on Tuesday there were no plans to call such a poll.

The question of the border poll risks inflaming an already tense political situation in Northern Ireland, following a decision by Belfast councillors to stop flying the Union flag every day at city hall.

Two months of protests by unionist demonstrators have at times erupted into sectarian rioting and clashes with the police.

“A border poll would be an incredibly divisive event,” said Henry Patterson, professor of politics at the University of Ulster.

“The unionists may win such a poll but it would not be an intelligent policy to pursue,” he said.

The 2011 census showed 48 per cent of Northern Ireland’s 1.8m population were from Protestant households while 45 per cent were from Catholic homes.

Unionists are confident there is growing support for remaining in the Union, in part because of the collapse of the economy in the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland’s £10bn budget deficit with Westminster.

The census also showed 48 per cent of Northern Ireland’s residents consider themselves British, 29 per cent Northern Irish and 28 per cent Irish.

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