Sinn Fein will only join coalition government in return for Irish unity referendum, leader says amid surge in support

John Walsh
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald - PA

Sinn Fein has made a border poll on Irish unity within five years a precondition for joining a coalition government in Dublin as its popularity surges.

Speaking at the launch of the party’s manifesto today, Mary Lou McDonald, the president of the Sinn Fein, said it wanted a border plebiscite by 2025 and an all-party forum on unification to convene in the next parliament.

The Irish general election takes place on February 8. The latest opinion poll, released last night by the Irish Times, showed a surge in support for Sinn Fein.

The party had a popularity rating of 21 per cent, which was up 7 per cent since the last poll three months ago and marginally behind the ruling Fine Gael party on 23 per cent and the biggest opposition party Fianna Fail on 25 per cent.

The campaign has been dominated by domestic issues such as a chronic shortage of housing and chaos in the health sector. Sinn Fein’s claims that these crises have been caused by decades of mismanagement by the two establishment parties has resonated with voters.

Leo Varadkar's ruling Fine Gael party is on 23 per cent in the polls Credit: Niall Carson/PA Wire

If these levels were replicated in the general election, then Fine Gael and Fianna Fail would find it hard to form a stable government without Sinn Fein MPs. However, both parties have ruled out a coalition with the former political wing of the Provisional IRA.

Michael Martin, the leader of Fianna Fail, has alleged that Sinn Fein policy is still dictated by the IRA’s army council.

Sinn Fein is the second biggest party in the power sharing executive in Northern Ireland and its policy is to be in government on both sides of the border, which would bolster its demands for a referendum on Irish unity.

According to the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the historic peace accord signed in 1998, the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has to call a border poll if there is sufficient demand for a plebiscite.

For the first time since the Northern Ireland state was founded almost 100 years ago, unionists have lost their majority in the devolved parliament while also for the first time a majority of nationalist MPs were returned to Westminster in the general election last month.

If the Northern Ireland Secretary agreed to a border poll, then two referendums would have to take place simultaneously in the north and south of the island. A majority in favour of unification would be needed in both polls if the proposal is to pass.