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Theresa May is right to be troubled about the prospect of Irish reunification

31 March 2017

3:24 PM

31 March 2017

3:24 PM

Amidst the apparent chaos in the days after the Brexit vote, one important story largely slipped under the radar. Now, the demand issued by Sinn Féin for a border poll on reunification of Ireland is resurfacing. Admittedly, back in June, it was difficult to know how much attention to pay to such a demand. Irish reunification is, after all, the entire purpose of the Irish Republican party. However, in the months since the referendum, the peripheral possibility of Irish reunification is starting to move centre stage. And the old platitude from Sinn Féin is morphing into a growing and credible movement on both sides of the Irish border.

But it’s not only Sinn Féin who are pushing for Irish reunification in the wake of Brexit. Other mainstream parties, including those in the Republic, are now seriously considering it. Fianna Fail, one of the South’s largest parties, is to release a White Paper on the matter. Similarly, Fine Gael leader and Prime Minister Enda Kenny has issued calls to allow easy access back into the EU for Northern Ireland if it reunites with the South. Meanwhile, a poll in October indicated that 65 per cent of people living in the Republic of Ireland now say they wish to see a United Ireland – one of the highest levels this decade. And, of course, the Northern Ireland Assembly elections held earlier this month led to unionists losing their majority for the first time after Irish reunification’s biggest advocates, Sinn Féin, secured their best ever electoral performance.

While much of the focus has been on whether Scotland will leave the UK due to Brexit, serious consideration must now be given to whether Northern Ireland could feasibly do the same. Theresa May did just that this week when she said:

‘We have a preference that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom, and we will never be neutral in expressing our support for that. And that’s because I believe fundamentally in the strength of our union.’

What’s interesting about May’s approach is just how much it differs from that of her predecessors. In recent years, British Prime Ministers have usually adopted a pretence of neutrality over the so called ‘Irish question’ – enabling them to facilitate peace talks between both ‘sides’ without alienating or aggravating the other. David Cameron, for instance, famously decided to engage as little as possible with the matter during his time in Downing Street.

However, Theresa May’s strong stance appears to suggest a new, more worried approach. It seems that her awareness that the union could be under threat in Scotland has awoken her to criticism that she isn’t doing enough to hold the United Kingdom together. If so, the constitutional question in Northern Ireland appears to be an easy opportunity for the Prime Minister to try and deflect such attacks. 

Whatever the PM’s intentions, it’s unlikely that she’ll get much in the way of thanks from local unionists in Northern Ireland, though. After all, her comments could easily play into Sinn Féin’s hands. The Conservative party remains deeply unpopular in Northern Ireland, even among unionist communities – despite the Tories leaning towards the right politically and being socially conservative. And by speaking up, May enables Sinn Féin to play on easy stereotypes of the English Tory elite versus the Northern Irish people. 

A better bet for May, rather than advocating the union for the union’s sake, would be to urgently clarify the future of the Irish border (although Guy Verhofstadt’s comments – that the EU would not push for a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic – will undoubtedly help her cause). In doing so, she would assuage fears and limit the chance for Sinn Fein and other Republicans to brew trouble and build their case for a united Ireland. But the longer any vacuum exists, the stronger the Republican cause will inevitably get.

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