DUBLIN (Reuters) - Ireland’s main opposition party, Fianna Fail, leading in opinion polls ahead of a Feb. 8 election, pledged on Friday to start preparations on how Dublin should approach a possible referendum on the unification of Ireland.
Under a 1998 peace deal that settled 30 years of sectarian violence in British-run Northern Ireland, Britain’s minister for the region can call a referendum if it appears likely that a majority of those voting would seek to form a united Ireland.
The Good Friday Agreement mostly ended three decades of violence between predominantly Catholic nationalists seeking union with Ireland and mainly Protestant unionists who want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. Some 3,600 people died.
While a withdrawal from the United Kingdom remains a distant prospect according to opinion polls, Britain’s exit from the EU has increased calls for a unity poll after Northern Ireland voted 56% to 44% to remain in Europe in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
A referendum would also be required in the Irish Republic.
Both Fianna Fail and the governing Fine Gael, the two clear favorites to lead the next government, have said they would ultimately like to see the unification of the island, which was partitioned almost a century ago, but that now is not the time.
Sinn Fein, the third largest party in Ireland and the only party with lawmakers in Northern Ireland, where it is part of a power-sharing government, is pushing for a unity poll by 2025 and for preparations to be stepped up significantly in advance.
In its election manifesto, Fianna Fail said it would set up a unit in the prime minister’s office to lead a formal study and cross-community consultation that would set out how an Irish government should approach the handling of a future referendum.
Without mentioning Sinn Fein, it said Northern Ireland’s future constitutional status could not be allowed to become a party-dominated issue, exploited for short-term reasons, and that the focus must be on a neutral and factual discussion of the impact of “various approaches” to Northern Ireland’s future.
Reporting by Padraic Halpin