Concern is mounting in Ireland at the prospects of a British withdrawal from the European Union and the implications this would have for border crossings and the economy.
With a referendum now expected in June, the campaign to leave the European Union has a nine-point lead in the latest opinion poll on the issue.
A poll for The Times newspaper - the first since a draft of proposed changes to the British relationship with the EU was published - found that 45 per cent planned to vote for a ‘Brexit’, compared to 36 per cent who want Britain to remain an EU member.
An EU summit is due to be held in two weeks to find concessions which could reverse the flow of support for a withdrawal ahead of the referendum.
In Ireland, all of the major political parties have expressed opposition to a Brexit, except the two unionist parties. The DUP looks set to campaign in favour of a withdrawal from the EU, alongside British Direct Ruler Therese Villiers, who disagrees with her Prime Minister David Cameron on the issue.
A key worry in Ireland is that Britain is Ireland’s biggest trading partner, and the two countries trade over 1bn euro of goods and services every week.
The implications of a Brexit for the ‘Common Travel Area’, the free travel area which includes Ireland and Britain but is outside Europe’s Schengen single-visa travel zone, is unclear, and also a focal point of the debate.
There has been concern among some politicians in the North that a return of checkpoints would highlight the continued partition of Ireland and fuel support for Irish republicanism.
But a senior DUP figure, Ian Paisley Jr, has claimed that a British withdrawal from the EU would not see a return of manned military or police checkpoints across the border in Ireland.
He suggested the intensive surveillance that takes place in border areas was a “multi-billion-pound operation” which functioned as an “electronic border”. He said the government already had “an electronic readout of the people who cross the border, the number plates which cross the border, the multiple crossings those number plates make.
But Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson has said a Brexit “could see the re-emergence of passport checkpoints and customs controls” along the Irish border that would hinder “free movement and disrupt the lives of nearly a million people living in the border region”.
Speaking from Brussels following a meeting with representatives of Scottish and Welsh nationalists, she said “the result of an English referendum should not be imposed on the people of the North of Ireland”.
The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader Colum Eastwood described the prospect of Britain’s withdrawal from Europe as “the biggest immediate threat to the economy of Northern Ireland and to the island as a whole”.
He insisted a Brexit “would undermine and destabilise the fabric of successive Anglo-Irish agreements”, would “undermine and destabilise our north-south institutions”, and would “resurrect borders and resurrect barriers for business”.
Last month, Taoiseach Enda Kenny said the issue of Britain’s EU membership was critical for Ireland and would create “serious difficulties” for the North.
“Our focus is on helping Britain and helping our colleagues in Europe so that everyone can benefit from reforms,” he told a press conference. “Out of this could come a really effective, stream-lined, competent and lean Europe.”
The comments drew criticism from unionists that he was “interfering” in a debate for “British” voters.
“It is for the people of the UK to decide what’s the best way forward and, as you know, we don’t take too kindly to people telling us what to do,” said DUP leader Arlene Foster.
Earlier, Mrs Foster’s party colleague, Nigel Dodds, said it was “disrespectful” for Irish politicians to tell people how to vote.
“I trust that Enda Kenny will keep this in mind when making future comments about the EU referendum,” he said.
Fianna Fail border region spokesman Brendan Smith described the comments as a “regrettable throwback to a time of cross-border insults and groundless suspicion”, while SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said they “reflect a mindset which reminds us of a time past”, adding that as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Taoiseach had every right to speak out.
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams also defended Kenny, and said the British referendum matters to people on both sides of the border.
“Unionist protestations at Enda Kenny’s comments on Brexit are entirely self-serving,” he said.
“The Taoiseach is right and entitled to make remarks about Brexit under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and in the context of its likely impact on the island of Ireland.”
He said: “If we had any criticism of the Taoiseach, it is that he isn’t engaged enough and that he should be engaged consistently in a strategic way on all these issues, not just this issue.
“If the people of Britain want to leave the EU, that is a matter for them, but that would have repercussions for people on this island; but particularly the fact that those of us who live in the North are going to be dragged with them if that is what they so decide would have very profound implications.”