Pressure for Irish reunification is at its highest in a generation after a shock ‘Leave’ result in the British referendum on the European Union is set to force the north of Ireland out of the EU and could bring a virtual iron curtain down across the island of Ireland.
With voters in the north of Ireland and Scotland electing to remain in the EU but outnumbered by a surging anti-immigrant vote in England and Wales, the ‘United Kingdom’ appears to be on course for dissolution. Facing new questions over the north’s political status, Sinn Fein has said the time has now come for a ‘border poll’. The poll -- a vote within the Six County area on Irish unity -- features in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement peace deal, but has always been blankly refused by the British government.
Britain’s Direct Ruler in the North, who worked closely with the right wing ‘Leave’ campaign, Theresa Villiers, has again refused a border poll. She has said the criteria for triggering a border poll has not been met. The 26 County Taoiseach Enda Kenny has backed Villiers, and said there is “no evidence” of support for reunification in the North.
However, the political and financial crisis presented by ‘Brexit’ has producing a sudden and strong demand for plebiscites in both Ireland and Scotland to assert our national rights in the face of the rise of right-wing ‘Little Englander’ isolationism in England and Wales.
The result violates the Principle of Consent, a long standing element of peace negotiations in the north of Ireland and included in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement at the insistence of unionists and the British government. Broadly, it states that there can be no change to the political status of the Six Counties against the wishes of a majority within the Six Counties.
Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said on Friday: “For us [the Six Counties] to be dragged out of the EU against our will is absolutely unacceptable.
“We have been calling for a border poll prior to this referendum. The outcome absolutely strengthens our argument, given that the democratically expressed wishes of the people of the North are going to be effectively ignored by a negotiation which will take place in all probability with a new British Prime Minister.”
The renewed focus on the Irish constitutional question mirrors that in Scotland, where First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has already demanded a second referendum on Scottish independence as early as this summer. Informal polls have shown support for a new referendum in Scotland at over 90%.
A British government spokesman said there could not be a public vote in Ireland as people “want to see peace and political stability”.
“The UK Government will continue to abide by its commitments in the Belfast Agreement,” the British spokesman said. “But there is no reason to change our view that a majority of the people of NI support the current political settlement and want to remain part of the UK. As the Government made clear in its NI manifesto last year, it continues to be the case that the requirements in the Belfast Agreement for a border poll are not met.”
In the 26 Counties, government politicians largely ducked and dodged on the issue. The Fine Gael Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan described the idea of a referendum as “most unhelpful”.
Unionists have said no, as Stormont’s First Minister, DUP leader Arlene Foster rejected the Sinn Fein demand for a border poll.
“The call for a border poll was as predictable as the flowers in May,” she said. “We knew it would come but the test has not been met so therefore I don’t believe it will happen.”
Enda Kenny and British prime minister David Cameron have planned crisis talks on Monday, and government officials will immediately discuss issues such as the Irish border and travel between the jurisdictions. The Dail is also to be recalled on Monday.
At a press conference in Dublin on Friday, Kenny insisted his government had prepared to “the greatest extent possible” for Brexit. “There will be no immediate change to the free flow of people, goods and services between our islands,” he said.
Mr Cameron, who announced his resignation on Friday, has said triggering article 50, the process of leaving the EU, would be a matter for his successor as prime minister who is likely to be in place by October. The European Commission, however, said the process must begin as soon as possible. The issue is expected to feature at an EU summit meeting next week which will discuss the Brexit fallout.
Mr Kenny said he supported Mr Cameron’s position and believed the negotiations must be given “breathing space”.
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said the British government has no democratic mandate to represent the views of the north in the future negotiations with the EU. He called on the Dublin government to support the “democratic imperative” for a border poll.
“The Taoiseach has to think nationally in a real sense. The Irish government needs an all-island, all-Ireland view,” he said. “The referendum result will have very profound effects for all of us on this island.”
He said it had “nothing to do with the best interests of our people, our island and our economy” and all do with factionalism within the Tory party.
“The people in the north voted to remain a part of the EU. The Good Friday Agreement is an international agreement. As a co-equal guarantor of the agreement the Irish government must also defend the interests of all the people of the island of Ireland at the EU Council meeting next week and in any future negotiations.”
The 1916 Societies hav said there is now an “immediate imperative” for Irish unity and a new all-Ireland Republic and insisted on an island-wide vote on unity. They accused Sinn Fein of “deliberately sowing confusion” on the issue of a referendum in Ireland.
“For republicans and nationalists at this time, the task at hand is to agree a unity of purpose and an effective strategy to realise that end. The same requires that the Irish people, freely and without impediment, determine together the ‘New Ireland’ - as is their democratic entitlement.”
The claimed that a border poll within the Six Counties “is in reality a device to withhold the national rights of the Irish people” and to deny Irish sovereignty.
Republican Sinn Fein leader Des Dalton welcomed the result of the referendum as “a blow against the modern imperialism of the undemocratic EU superstate and a means to “unleash forces” to break up the United Kingdom.
“We are entering a period of radical change which presents opportunities for those committed to fighting for real democracy not only within nations but also between nations,” he said. “A community of free nations as envisaged by James Connolly. Within such a community of free nations an All-Ireland Federal Democratic Socialist Republic could take its rightful place.”
BREXIT REFERENDUM RESULT
OVERALL - Leave: 51.9%, Remain: 48.1% (Turnout 72.2%)
ENGLAND - Leave 53.4%, Remain 46.6% (Turnout 73%)
SCOTLAND - Leave: 38.0%, Remain: 62.0% (Turnout 67.2%)
WALES - Leave: 52.5%, Remain: 47.5% (Turnout 71.7%)
GIBRALTAR - Leave: 4.1%, Remain: 95.9% (Turnout 83.7%)
NORTH OF IRELAND - Leave: 44.2%, Remain: 55.8% (Turnout 62.9%)
The Six Counties by constituency:
East Belfast - Leave: 51.4%, Remain: 48.6% (Turnout 66.5%)
North Belfast - Leave: 49.6%, Remain: 50.4% (Turnout 57.5%)
South Belfast - Leave: 30.5%, Remain: 69.5% (Turnout 67.6%)
West Belfast - Leave: 25.9%, Remain: 74.1% (Turnout 48.9%)
East Antrim - Leave: 55.2%, Remain: 44.8% (Turnout 65.2%)
East Derry - Leave: 48%, Remain 52% (Turnout 59.9%)
Fermanagh & South Tyrone - Leave: 41.4%, Remain: 58.6% (Turnout 67.9%)
Foyle - Leave: 21.7%, Remain: 78.3% (Turnout 57.4%)
Lagan Valley - Leave: 53.1%, Remain: 46.9% (Turnout 66.6%)
Mid Ulster - Leave: 39.6%, Remain: 60.4% (Turnout 61.7%)
Newry & Armagh - Leave: 37.1%, Remain: 62.9% (Turnout 63.7%)
North Antrim: Leave: 62.2, Remain: 37.8 (Turnout 64.9%)
North Down - Leave: 47.6, Remain: 52.4 (Turnout 67.7%)
South Antrim - Leave: 50.6, Remain: 49.4% (Turnout 63.4%)
South Down - Leave: 32.8%, Remain: 67.2% (Turnout 62.4%)
Strangford - Leave: 55.5%, Remain: 44.5% (Turnout 64.5%)
Upper Bann - Leave: 52.6%, Remain: 47.4% (Turnout 63.8%)
West Tyrone - Leave: 33.2%, Remain: 66.8% (Turnout 61.8%)