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Saturday, 9 March, 2002, 16:40 GMT
Trimble calls for border poll
Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble has called on the government to organise a poll on a united Ireland next year.

The surprise call was made in Mr Trimble's keynote address to the annual meeting of his party's ruling council on Saturday.

It caught the government off-guard and the Northern Ireland Office said it would make no immediate decision.

It has been decades since a popular assessment of the issue and it would be timely to make that assessment now

Alex Attwood
The wording of the Good Friday Agreement only allows for a poll if it is thought there is a likelihood of majority support for a united Ireland.

Earlier on Saturday Mr Trimble was re-elected unopposed as party leader.

He believes a referendum - the first on the issue since 1973 - will cement the province's position within the United Kingdom.

If a referendum is to be held it will coincide with elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly which are due to take place in May 2003.

Census figures

Should the Northern Ireland secretary approve a 2003 poll, the Agreement would only allow another poll after seven years, in 2010.

Many Sinn Fein politicians would be likely to oppose a poll despite the party's claims that last year's census figures, not yet published, show increasing numbers of Catholics in the province.

Speculation about the census figures has led to some republican politicians arguing the day of a united Ireland comes ever closer on demographics alone.

Let us copper fasten the Union and put the naysayers and prophets of gloom to flight

David Trimble
Sinn Fein chairman Mitchel McLaughlin welcomed Mr Trimble's call for a referendum but said the UUP leader should apologise for "gratuitously insulting" the Republic of Ireland in his address to delegates.

Mr Trimble described the country as a "pathetic, sectarian mono-ethnic, mono-cultural state".

Mr McLaughlin said: "It has to be recognised that there are five and a quarter million people on the island of Ireland and there is a certain logic to having a single system of government for them."

"We welcome his call for a border poll and look forward to discussing and debating with unionists how we can make a united Ireland acceptable to them.

"It was bellicose and gratuitously insulting language to the majority of people on this island who want to see a peaceful future."

Mr Trimble's call for a referendum was also welcomed by the chairman of the nationalist SDLP Alex Attwood.

'Balance of Britishness'

The West Belfast Assembly member responded: "The reason why the SDLP negotiated to have a provision for a border poll in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 was to have a regular assessment of support for a united Ireland.

"It has been decades since a popular assessment of the issue and it would be timely to make that assessment now."

However, Mr Trimble believes there is demonstrably still a majority across all communities and a referendum would prove that.

A Downing Street spokesman said: "There are no plans for a referendum at this stage, but if Mr Trimble has proposals no doubt he will want to talk to us about them."

Mitchel McLaughlin
Mitchel McLaughlin: "Mr Trimble should apologise"

The Northern Ireland Office said: "This is a new proposal to us.

"As with any proposal we are not going to make an immediate response, and we will want to take views on it before responding."

Speaking to the UUP meeting, Mr Trimble said a united Ireland would be disastrous and argued Northern Ireland currently offered "the right balance of Britishness and Irishness".

"It seeks to accommodate and not repress. It offers stability and flexibility.

"It is the only possible future for the Northern Ireland of tomorrow socially, economically and politically.

"So in May 2003, let us copper fasten the Union and put the naysayers and prophets of gloom to flight."

The UUP leader was also tough on the issue of republican arms, insisting: "There must be real progress soon or we will have to confront republicans again over decommissioning.

But he added: "The harsh reality is that the bulk of violence today is from within loyalism."

See also:

09 Mar 02 | Northern Ireland
Trimble re-elected as unionist leader
08 Mar 02 | Northern Ireland
Trimble 'likely to keep job'
08 Mar 02 | Northern Ireland
Plan 'could defuse' amnesty row
06 Mar 02 | Northern Ireland
Assembly exclusion motion defeated
11 Feb 02 | Northern Ireland
Ulster Unionist 'fee hike' for Orangemen
09 Mar 02 | Northern Ireland
Unionist pressure results in border call
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