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Sinn Fein wants vote on Northern Ireland leaving UK 'as soon as possible'

BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Ireland’s largest Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein on Monday said it wanted a referendum on splitting from the United Kingdom “as soon as possible”, hours after Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon demanded a new independence vote.

Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams and Sinn Fein leader Michelle O'Neill speak to media outside Stormont Castle in Belfast, Northern Ireland March 7, 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

Sinn Fein has been regularly calling for a vote for Northern Ireland to leave the UK and unite with the Republic of Ireland since Britain voted to leave the European Union last June while most voters in Northern Ireland voted to remain.

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Under a 1998 peace deal that ended 30 years of sectarian violence in the province, the British government can call a referendum if it appears likely a majority of those voting would seek to form part of a united Ireland.

But Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State James Brokenshire said in July last year that he did not believe the conditions for calling a referendum had been met.

Opinion polls in the past have shown a majority of people in Northern Ireland want to remain part of the United Kingdom - in an IPSOS-MORI poll in September, only 22 percent of 1,000 voters questioned said they would support a united Ireland while 63 percent said they would prefer to remain part of the UK.

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However, there has been no poll in recent months and Sinn Fein saw a surge in its support at assembly elections a week ago.

“Brexit will be a disaster for the economy, and a disaster for the people of Ireland. A referendum on Irish unity has to happen as soon a possible,” Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill told reporters in Belfast.

Fifty-six percent of voters in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union in June last year, but 52 percent of the United Kingdom as a whole voted to leave.

The British government “are continuing to refuse to listen to the majority view and they are refusing to honour their commitments and agreements,” O’Neill said.

O’Neill’s comments come as British Prime Minister Theresa May is poised to launch the Brexit process, which is expected to have major implications for the economy of Northern Ireland which has close trade links to the Irish Republic, an EU member.

Reporting by Ian Graham; Writing by Conor Humphries, editing by Pritha Sarkar