Brexit tangle raises prospect of Irish reunification

London (AFP) –


The wrangle over what will happen to the Irish border after Brexit has put the previously unthinkable possibility of reunification of the island of Ireland firmly on the political agenda.

Support for staying in the European Union is increasing in Northern Ireland as the Brexit negotiations falter, according to a study released this month by Queen's University Belfast.

The poll of more than 1,000 residents of Northern Ireland also found 47 percent supported holding a referendum, although only 21 percent said they would currently favour a united Ireland.

The study said the results showed a hard Brexit in which Britain left the EU single market and customs union, combined with an economic downturn could make the prospect of Irish unity "particularly attractive" for the province's Catholic community.

In the 2016 referendum, Northern Ireland voted 56 percent to remain in the EU but, like Scotland, was outvoted by England and Wales and the overall result was 52 percent for Brexit.

The study found support for EU membership has now risen to 69 percent.

"What's becoming increasingly clear is the rise and rise of the Remain vote in Northern Ireland," Colin Harvey from Queen's told a conference organised by the UK in a Changing Europe think tank.

"And I think there is extreme peril and danger in rendering that Remain vote politically and legally meaningless," he said.

- Reunification 'risk' -

Unlike pro-EU Scotland, Northern Ireland could technically stay in the European Union by voting to join the Republic of Ireland.

The 1998 Good Friday peace agreements allow for the possibility of a referendum on Irish unity if the British government judges that the public mood has shifted significantly in favour of the idea.

So far only the nationalist Sinn Fein party, once the political voice of the Irish Republican Army, has called for a vote.

Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a supporter of Irish unity, played down the prospect on a visit to Belfast this month, but it is weighing on the British prime minister's mind.

Theresa May reprimanded a leading eurosceptic in her Conservative party earlier this month for being naive about the possibility, according to a report in The Times newspaper.

After pro-Brexit hardliner MP Jacob Rees-Mogg said Northern Ireland would vote to stay a part of the United Kingdom in the case of a referendum, she reportedly told him: "That's not a risk I'm prepared to take. We cannot be confident on the politics of the situation, on how it plays out".

- Brexit brings 'new dynamic' -

May has vowed to avoid any new border checks after Britain leaves the EU next year amid fears of upsetting the fragile arrangements in a region once blighted by violence.

But her government has yet to find a practical way to do this, while also fulfilling a promise to leave the EU's customs union and single market after Britain's withdrawal.

Under a preliminary deal struck with Brussels in December, Britain as a whole would maintain "full alignment" with EU trade rules if no other arrangement has been found.

Brussels has since come up with a proposal that would effectively keep only Northern Ireland in the EU customs union -- something that pro-British unionists fiercely oppose.

Some British eurosceptics have accused the Irish government of exaggerating the problem and using their leading role in Brexit negotiations in pursuit of a secret agenda to unite Ireland.

In Derry, a border town that was at the heart of three decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland known as "The Troubles", Sinn Fein politician Elisha McCallion warned any new frontier checks would affect her life.

"My child goes to a nursery daily on the other side of the border. I would cross informally the jurisdiction between the north and the south six or eight times a day," she said.

McCallion argued that reunification would be the only solution, adding: "Brexit has flown a new dynamic in the conversation. People are talking about unity regularly."