A British government should remain neutral on the question of a united Ireland in the event of a border poll, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary has said.
Louise Haigh said it would be for the people of Northern Ireland to decide such an issue, arguing this was mandated in the Good Friday agreement which brought an end to the Troubles 23 years ago.
“It’s not my job to be a persuader for the union, that was an important principle that led up to the Good Friday agreement,” the Labour MP told GB News. “One of the important principles was that Britain should not have any strategic or selfish economic interest in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. It’s up to the people of Northern Ireland to determine their own constitutional future.
“The principle of consent is still very much intact. It is only for the people of Northern Ireland to determine their own constitutional future and polls still suggest there is still a very firm majority in favour of remaining in the United Kingdom.”
Her position that Westminster should not campaign for one side of the constitutional argument drew criticism from both the Democratic Unionist and Ulster Unionist parties.
The DUP MP Carla Lockhart said Haigh’s position was contrary to declarations by the Labour leader, Sir Keir Starmer, who said in July he would be “on the side of unionists” arguing for Northern Ireland to remain in the UK.
“The comments of Louise Haigh not only contradict these but demonstrate a fundamental misunderstanding of the principle of consent,” the Upper Bann MP said, adding it was “wrong to suggest” Westminster had to remain neutral on the matter.
The former Ulster Unionist party leader Steve Aitken said the idea that the government would not campaign for Northern Ireland to remain in the union was “very puzzling”. Nobody “considers it even remotely likely” the Irish government would adopt a stance of neutrality, he added.
The prospect of a border poll is not considered imminent but it has become a topic of discussion on both sides of the border since the Brexit referendum.
The peace accord of 1998 states that both the Irish and British governments would recognise “the legitimacy of whatever choice is freely exercised by a majority of the people of Northern Ireland with regard to its status, whether they prefer to continue to support the union with Great Britain or a sovereign united Ireland”.
It goes on to state that it is “for the people of the island alone by agreement by the two parts respectively and without external impediment” to determine their future constitutional status.
In practice this means there would be two referendums in Ireland in the event a border poll was called in Northern Ireland.
Under the agreement the Irish government would have to hold a parallel referendum in the Republic of Ireland but the power to call a poll in Northern Ireland rests with the secretary of state, currently Brandon Lewis.