Press "Enter" to skip to content

Brexit forces Irish Unity agenda

A discussion on Ireland on the possibility of Irish unity is shaking the political system, The Irish Times report.

Addressing his parliamentary party group on Thursday, it is reported that minister Leo Varadkarhinted on the possibility of a “tectonic movement” in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to Remain in the EU, and the economic and symbolic impact of a hard border could shift public opinion towards support for a Border poll, in time. The Good Friday Agreement envisages the possibility of a “border poll” or “unity poll,” a fact that hardline Brexiteers are ignoring.

Varadkar has made clear that the technological solution advocated by Brexit hardliners to avoid a hard border in Irelands – referred to as Maximum Facilitation (Max Fac) – is off the table was off the table for Dublin. He also warns that no deal on the interrelated issues of customs and borders does mean that the overall withdrawal agreement is called into question.

“Certainly, the customs partnership, as proposed by the UK last June {2017}, isn’t workable, that’s the view of the (EU) taskforce and the EU27 and has been rejected, but I do think the customs partnership is closer to being made workable than this proposal of ‘max fac’,” Varadkar told parliament in May.

The Times of London repeatedly reports on the red line drawn by backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg, who believes Brussels is using the issue of Ireland instrumentally to impose membership of the Customs Union. He is proposing that the UK keeps the Irish border open in any event, putting the onus on the EU and the Republic to construct a border infrastructure in the event of a “no deal” scenario.

Theresa May has reportedly challenging Rees-Mogg, reminding him that under the Good Friday Agreement the Secretary of State is required to hold a referendum on Northern Ireland’s membership of the UK (unity poll). According to The Times, the British prime minister is not confident that the UK would win this referendum.

This uncertainty, although not publicly expressed, has constitutional implications.  The Belfast Agreement provides that “the secretary of state shall exercise the power [to call a unity poll] if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.”

In any event, Irish law makes clear that the Irish nation holds on to the objective of unification, to “… be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island.”

The initiative would have to come from the UK. But, if polls addressing this question were published, indicating a shift in public opinion, the Irish Secretary would be required to take them into account.

First published in New Europe: