Labour denies MLA vote will decide on united Ireland as Sinn Fein victory looms

Sinn Féin claim united Ireland is ‘within touching distance’ rejected by UK government

Sinn Féin has claimed that Irish reunification is “within touching distance” as the party’s deputy leader, Michelle O’Neill, prepares to accept the post of Northern Ireland first minister.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said on Tuesday that the expected restoration of power sharing was a signal of a “historical turning of the wheel” that would unite the island.

She said: “In historic terms, it is within touching distance and I think that is a very exciting thing and I hope people will find that a very welcoming conversation”.

McDonald has previously predicted a referendum on Irish unity by 2030. 

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement states the secretary of state for Northern Ireland, presently Chris Heaton-Harris, must call a border poll if it “appears likely” a majority would back reunification.

Amid the possibility that O’Neill could become first minister of the Stormont executive by the weekend, McDonald said: “That will be a moment of very great significance, not simply because we haven’t had government for so long but because it will be the first time that we will have a Sinn Féin first minister, a nationalist first minister”.

O’Neill is now expected to become the first nationalist first minister in Northern Ireland’s history after she led Sinn Fein to a historic victory in the May 2022 elections.

It comes after DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson signalled an end to two years of deadlock early on Tuesday when a meeting of the party’s executive endorsed a deal to revive power sharing.

Speaking this morning, UK government minister Dame Andrea Leadsom rejected that Irish reunification is “within touching distance”, describing Northern Ireland as “an integral and critical part of the United Kingdom”.

She told Sky News: “I’m an equal Brexiteer and Unionist, so I absolutely will do everything possible to ensure that Northern Ireland remains part of the UK internal market, that we respect totally the challenges of Northern Ireland.”

Meanwhile, shadow minister Tulip Siddiq told Sky News that Labour is “happy” the DUP and UK government have reached an agreement to restore power-sharing in Stormont.

Challenged again on if Labour would support a united Ireland if that is what the people of Northern Ireland wanted, she replied: “I think we have to see how the negotiations go and see the details of what comes forward.”

Pushed repeatedly, Siddiq added that Sinn Fein would “probably not” have Labour’s support for a united Ireland. is the UK’s leading digital-only political website, providing comprehensive coverage of UK politics. Subscribe to our daily newsletter here.