David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist leader, called for a referendum on a united Ireland, catching the Government by surprise.
As John Reid, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, prepared to get married in London, Mr Trimble pulled the referendum idea out of the hat at a conference in Belfast.
A spokesman for 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."
Mr Trimble made the surprise move to wrong-foot Sinn Fein leaders who have begun a concerted campaign for a referendum on a united Ireland. They had started their campaign in the belief that by the time it was held they could muster enough support in the North – even among some unionists – for a Yes vote.
The nationalist SDLP also said they would welcome a poll to clear the air. Mr Trimble said he was calling for the referendum to call the bluff of the nationalists.
The referendum vote should be held in the North at the same time as the Assembly elections next year, he said, making it clear that he would secure a No vote. Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, that would lay to rest the prospect of a united Ireland for at least another seven years.Reuse content