DUBLIN -- Northern Ireland should hold a referendum as early as 2016 on whether to remain British or join a united Ireland, Sinn Fein, the main pro-Irish nationalist party in the province, said yesterday.
The British government in London, already facing calls for a referendum in 2014 on ending Scotland's 300-year union with England, has the final say on whether a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland can be held.
Sinn Fein's leader in Northern Ireland, Martin McGuinness, said he favored a referendum after the next election to Northern Ireland's assembly, which is likely to happen in 2015 or 2016.
McGuinness is a former commander with the Irish Republican Army guerrilla group.
Just as 2014 is a key year for Scottish nationalists, marking the 700th anniversary of a historic victory over the English, so 2016 is important for Irish nationalists, as it marks the centenary of a popular uprising against British rule.
One political analyst dismissed the referendum idea as being outside "the realm of practical politics." But another leading Sinn Fein member, Pearse Doherty, a member of parliament in the Irish Republic, echoed McGuinness's comments.
Under a 1998 peace deal, the British government can call a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland if it appears likely that a majority of people in the province want to break with Britain and form a united Ireland.
Unlike in the case of Scotland, which the British government wants to keep as part of the United Kingdom, Westminister has committed to ending the union with Northern Ireland if a majority in the province want it to.
But the likelihood of that happening is remote as Protestants, who overwhelmingly favor remaining in the U.K., outnumber Catholics, who usually support the Irish nationalist cause.