Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald says she is willing to discuss the possibility of Ireland joining the British Commonwealth.
McDonald said the idea needed to be considered in the context of preparing the way for a united Ireland.
Speaking in the The Journal, she said it was necessary to encourage Unionists to take part in the discussions, and that it was important not to censor opinions before the debate has begun.
She said: “You can hardly make that call and then say ‘we are not going to discuss any particular item’. And there are some people who think that rejoining the Commonwealth is a worthy proposition.
“I think those that hold that view need to put that view forward, and I think it needs to be looked at, and debated, and it needs to be discussed.
“It is not a proposition that I would be advancing – but I am me. This is not all about Sinn Féin. This is much bigger than us. The debate has to have the capacity to put everything on the table and then the business of debate and discussion in a reflective way, not a divisive way.”
McDonald urged the Irish government to start making plans for how a united Ireland could be achieved. “I am firmly of the view that we are now on the way to a unity referendum. I think the genie is out of the bottle. I think the discussion around a new Ireland, how we might get there, and what it might look like is already underway.”
The idea of a united Ireland would have seemed fanciful a few years ago but is now being taken seriously by politicians from all parties. This is partly because the demographics of the north are changing, with Catholics likely to become the majority over the next 10 years.
While it’s by no means the case that all Catholics are nationalists, a large majority of them tend to favour reunification.
Britain’s decision to leave the European Union could also be a major factor, with many Catholics who may have been reluctant nationalists in the past, now more likely to favour a united Ireland as a way for them to stay in the EU.
Some unionists are starting to think the same way.
Unionists still overwhelmingly oppose reunification but are starting to acknowledge that it could happen. The former leader of the DUP, Peter Robinson, said he did not favour a united Ireland but said unionists should prepare of the possibility.
McDonald said: “The change is in the air, and coming this way, it cannot be ignored, it can’t be denied, it can’t be delayed, in my view. I have heard a lot of people say that the poll on unity would be divisive, it would be dangerous, it is one of these issues that is ‘too hot to handle’. I don’t accept that.”
“We have to ask, in the national interest, in the interest of people right across the country, what is the next move and the next move post-Brexit is to re-fashion Ireland on a 32-county basis.
“It is big challenge, it is a huge job of work, it is a job for all of us.”