In a potentially historic advance, the Irish Taoiseach and the leader of the largest opposition party in the Dublin parliament have both said they recognise the prospect of a referendum to bring about Irish reunification.
Speaking at the MacGill summer school in the Glenties, County Donegal, the two leaders separately stated that a united Ireland referendum could take place in the near future arising from the fact that the Six Counties of the north of Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, while Britain voted to leave.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny (pictured) called on the European Union to prepare for the Six Counties seeking to reunite with the 26 Counties in a ‘border poll’, as outlined in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The Fine Gael leader said such a referendum was now more likely in light of the decision by Britain to leave the EU.
He likened it to Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when the EU supported West Germany in absorbing the East back into their country -- and the EU.
“The discussion and negotiations that take place over the next period should take into account the possibility, however far out it might be, that the clause in the Good Friday Agreement might be triggered,” he said, “in that if there is a clear evidence of a majority of people wishing to leave the United Kingdom and join the Republic, that should be catered for in the discussions.”
He said a unity referendum was more likely to succeed due to recent events: “It may be, in the eyes of some, a fanciful theory but who knows what happens in 10, 20 years time?”
His comments were later said to be related to upcoming negotiations in Europe on dealing with the implications of Britain leaving the EU, and he drew on a surprising precedent.
“In the same way as East Germany was dealt with when the wall came down, was able to be absorbed into West Germany and not to have to have to go through a torturous and long process of applying for membership of the European Union,” the Taoiseach said.
“So when Northern Ireland voted to stay (in the EU), who knows what might happen in the time ahead? I am just making the point that these are the kinds of things that should be looked at in the broadest of ways in discussions that take place.
“People said it would be impossible that Britain would leave the European Union; that has taken place now.”
The statement marks a historic shift in the stance of a party which has always sought to avoid any discussion about the North which might offend unionists or the British government.
Just 24 hours earlier, the leader of Ireland’s chief Opposition party Micheal Martin said he hoped Brexit would move Ireland closer to reunification.
The Fianna Fail leader, who is allied with Mr Kenny in support of his minority coalition government, said a reunification referendum should be called if it becomes clear a majority want to see an end to Irish partition over the UK decision to pull out of the EU.
Mr Martin added that the North’s 56% majority vote to remain within the bloc could be a defining moment for the region.
“It may very well be that the decision of Northern Ireland to oppose the English-driven anti-EU UK majority is a defining moment in Northern politics,” he said. “The Remain vote may show people the need to rethink current arrangements. I hope it moves us towards majority support for unification, and if it does we should trigger a reunification referendum.”
Mr Martin, a former foreign affairs minister, said a move to further divide the island with a customs and immigration frontier “would potentially set us back decades”.
“The most urgent thing which is required is an immediate end to the hands-off detachment of recent years,” he said. “Meeting the challenge of Brexit is a moment to end this and also to begin rebuilding public faith in politics.”
He also appeared to accept his own party’s previous failings in regard to the North.
“It is a sad reality that our government and our media have tended to ignore Northern Ireland except when there is a crisis. Meeting the challenge of Brexit is a moment to end this and also to begin rebuilding public faith in politics.”
He called for an all-island response to Brexit that reaches out “to excluded groups, to show that a broader range of interests than those articulated by the dominant political parties can be heard”.
He added: “I have in particular stressed our belief that civil society must be included together with business, unions and professional organisations.”
At the heart of political concerns is the 310-mile partition of Ireland which is the only land border between British jurisdiction and the rest of the EU. Militarised with checkpoints and road closures at the height of conflict, their replacement with electronic surveillance systems could be threatened by Brexit and physical controls once again placed on the movement of people and goods.
Britain’s new governor in the north of Ireland, James Brokenshire, said he did not think that the ‘conditions’ for a referendum in the Six Counties (essentially, that it would pass) have been met. But on his first day in Belfast, he accepted that the issue of a border was a priority.
“We don’t want to see that hard border coming into place and I think there is a real sense of commitment between the UK government and also the Irish government to work together very closely so we don’t see that returning,” he said.
Irish reunification is the “biggest and best idea around” and must now be considered in light of Brexit, according to SDLP leader Colum Eastwood. However, he pointed to the failure of Irish politicians to advance their cause relative to Scottish leaders.
“Scottish independence campaigners produced a 670 page document outlining the path to independent nationhood and how it would operate,” he said. “It was credible and detailed. Irish nationalism now needs to start on its page one.”
Almost 90 per cent of people polled in a survey for the Derry Journal this week said they would vote for a United Ireland if a referendum was held now. Another poll, for the unionist Belfast Telegraph ibn Belfast, showed some 73% supported an immediate border poll with 70% saying they would vote for the two parts of the island to be reunited.
On a visit to Scotland last week, the new British Prime Minister Theresa May stressed the need for what she described as a “UK approach” to be agreed before Brexit was triggered. As it appeared she had a potential Scottish veto on Brexit, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said her country was now in a “very, very strong position”.
Sinn Fein’s deputy First Minister in Belfast Mr McGuinness referred to the same comments as he spoke outside Stormont Castle in Belfast on Monday.
“Theresa May said in the aftermath of the meeting with Nicola Sturgeon, and Nicola quoted her over the course of the weekend, that she would not trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty unless people in these areas were content,” he said.
“Well I can tell Theresa May, and I did tell her when I spoke to her on the telephone last week when she rang me, we are not content. The people of Scotland have made their position clear, we have made our position clear - that needs to be respected.”
Mr McGuinness also spoke of his fear that the troubled Six County economy could suffer the absence of EU financial supports.
“The economic implications for us in a withdrawal from the European Union are very profound, costing us over a period of ten years anything in the region of 7 to 8 billion pounds and possibly even more,” Mr McGuinness told a press conference. “There is alarm in the north of Ireland among the business community, among the community and voluntary sector, among our universities, among our agri-food industry.”
Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said the comments from both Mr Kenny and Mr Martin mean a referendum on a united Ireland is now on the agenda -- and that a decision should be made within four years.
“The British decision to leave [the EU] could take two years to negotiate out, and then another two years to negotiate an agreement [between Britain and the EU], so there is a time frame there.
“I would like to see a border poll yesterday, but the Taoiseach’s language was qualified in so far as he said it won’t happen for some time, but he’s embraced the concept and will make that part of the Brexit negotiations and that’s good,” Mr Adams said.
He said he does not know what is behind Fine Gael and Fianna Fail’s “change of heart” on the issue, but said he welcomed the move from “outright rejection to embrace”.
Asked how a referendum could be brought forward when James Brokenshire has already ruled it out, Mr Adams added: “Sometimes secretaries of state on their first day can be very, very short sighted. That was never going to be his or her decision, that is a decision for his and her governments. It was always above the pay scale of the secretary of state.”