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Union (Referendum)

Volume 528: debated on Wednesday 18 May 2011

5. What his policy is on the treatment of any request by a Northern Ireland political party for a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland as part of the Union; and if he will make a statement. (55383)

No such request has been made to the Government. The policy and legal position on this issue is set out in the Belfast agreement and the subsequent legislation, the Northern Ireland Act 1998.

I thank the Minister for his answer. He will be aware that Sinn Fein raised the issue of a referendum in the recent Assembly elections. May I push the Minister a little further and ask what mechanisms would be used to deal with any future request for a referendum?

I do not want to dwell on the hon. Gentleman’s domestic situation in Scotland—it is not the same in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State has the right to hold a referendum at any point and he has a duty to hold one if it appears there is likely to be a majority for a united Ireland. It is quite clear in the Belfast agreement, but no such situation arises in Northern Ireland. Indeed, we very much hope that the new Executive will concentrate on bread-and-butter issues such as the economy rather than issues that seem to be of interest in Scotland.

Does the Minister recognise that dissidents try to make the argument on the ground in nationalist areas that those of us who support the Good Friday agreement have gone derelict on Irish unity? Does he recognise therefore that he has to treat with validity those of us who make the case for framing progress towards unity? Will he confirm that in the event of a referendum the British Government would play no part in imposing or opposing any free choice that would be made by the Irish people?

The hon. Gentleman’s party’s position is well known and I pay tribute here again to the way in which his party has embraced the ballot box and the democratic process. In a referendum, that would be for the people of Northern Ireland to decide. I can do no better than support the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister—it is probably a career-advancing thing to do—who, in a speech in May 2010, stated clearly and unequivocally:

“I will never be neutral on our Union. We passionately believe that England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are stronger together, weaker apart”.

I believe that, as Aristotle said, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.