DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has dismissed Sinn Fein predictions of a border poll within 10 years, stating: “We are nowhere near a united Ireland.”
Sir Jeffrey said Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald must have the “longest arms on this island” to state Irish unity is within touching distance.
The DUP gave the green light for the recall of the Stormont Assembly on the back of a deal with the Government on post-Brexit trading arrangements, following its two-year boycott.
Last week, two pieces of legislation contained in the agreement to resurrect devolution were fast-tracked through the House of Commons.
Sir Jeffrey has said the new arrangements have effectively removed the so-called Irish Sea border for goods moving from Great Britain to, and staying in, Northern Ireland.
However, the return of Stormont led to Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill becoming Northern Ireland’s first nationalist First Minister. Party leader Mary Lou McDonald said Irish unity is now within “touching distance” and Ms O’Neill predicted a border poll within 10 years.
But the DUP leader told the Pat Kenny Show on Newstalk Radio that he didn’t think “anyone with any credibility believes that this is the case”.
He added: “There is nothing to suggest there has been a significant shift in public opinion in Northern Ireland.
“All polling data points to a very strong majority in favour of remaining in the UK.
“Let’s face it, Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland represent about 27-28% of the vote, that’s a long way shy of a majority.”
Sir Jeffrey added: “Unless Mary Lou McDonald has the longest arms on this island, I don’t think she is anywhere close to touching distance.
“As for the 10 years, Gerry Adams once predicted there would be a united Ireland by 2016, we are almost 10 years on from that and we are nowhere near a united Ireland.”
He said he wanted to see closer mutual co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
“I think there is so much we can work on together, to co-operate on.
“All this talk coming from Sinn Fein, one party talking up a divisive border poll at a time when I think the people of Northern Ireland want to see their politicians working together, focusing on the real issues now that matter to them – health, education, housing, childcare support, prosperity, jobs – all of these things matter to people.
“We are up for working for others to deliver a better future for everyone in Northern Ireland.
“I think all this talk of a border poll is just that.
“I think Sinn Fein are trying to up the ante, they are trying to reassure their base after the gains the DUP have made in this agreement that bind Northern Ireland more closely into the United Kingdom.
“It is really smoke to cover what they know and recognise: we are not moving closer to a united Ireland.”
Sir Jeffrey also denied that a strike by public sector workers in Northern Ireland was a major factor in persuading his party to return to Stormont.
The UK Government has offered a £3.3 billion financial package, including a sum to settle public sector pay claims, but it was dependent on the return of the powersharing institutions.
Sir Jeffrey said: “Obviously we want our public sector workers to get their much-deserved pay award and, in fact, the UK Government has set aside the funding to enable that to happen in the current financial year.
“Frankly, they should have proceeded to give the public sector workers their pay award.
“It wasn’t a major factor in our decision (to go back to Stormont), because in the end it was about getting agreement with the Government, ensuring that they delivered on their side, that we got the progress that was needed to protect Northern Ireland’s ability to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom.
“It is a vital market for us with over £12 billion of goods sold in Great Britain every year.
“That was the key element of arriving at an agreement, to secure the changes that we needed with the Government.
“And now, hopefully in tandem with the Treasury we can deliver that public sector pay award to our public sector workers.”