A clamour for a realignment of borders in the aftermath of Brexit has seen the most senior figure in David Cameron’s former Tory Cabinet join increasing numbers of unionists in admitting that Ireland could soon be reunited.
Former British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (left) candidly admitted the majority of the English public “will not care” if there is a united Ireland in the near term.
Now the editor-in-chief of the London Evening Standard, Osborne urged the current British government to accept that the Six Counties of the north of Ireland are “heading for the exit door”.
“By remaining in the EU single market, it (the north of Ireland) is for all economic intents and purposes now slowly becoming part of a united Ireland,” wrote Mr Osborne.
“Its prosperity now depends on its relationship with Dublin (and Brussels), not London. The politics will follow.
“Northern Irish unionists always feared the mainland was not sufficiently committed to their cause.
“Now their short-sighted support for Brexit.. has made those fears a reality. It pains me to report that most here and abroad will not care.”
Osborne made the statement as increasing numbers of leading unionists said for the first time that there is a need to argue their case in the debate on Irish unity.
Three DUP MPs have now expressed support for their former party leader, Peter Robinson, who has repeatedly called for preparations for a border poll.
The former First Minister (right) noted this week that ‘Northern Ireland’ was not initially intended to be permanent, pointing out that the all-island Council of Ireland was set up at the same time as partition in 1921 and could have opened the way to a unitary state on the island.
“The apparatus of the Council of Ireland suggests our separateness from the South was to be short-term and transitory,” he wrote.
He repeated his call for an open debate on the North’s constitutional future. Current Belfast East DUP MP Gavin Robinson (no relation), said his former party leader is “absolutely right” to warn that a looming vote on the north’s constitutional future cannot be ignored.
He said it is “incumbent on unionists not to take the status quo for granted” but to find ways to “augment, enhance and solidify” the union.
Two of his Westminster colleagues also voiced support for a change in tack by unionism.
Upper Bann MP Carla Lockhart said: “Gavin is taking a very sensible, pragmatic approach – it’s vital that we prepare ourselves for the future and any scenario including a border poll.”
And East Derry hardline unionists Gregory Campbell MP said unionists, on its centenary, should be arguing the case in favour of continuing partition of the island.
“The DUP, just as Gavin outlined, has been to the fore in pressing the government and wider unionism to promote the benefits of being part of the United Kingdom, especially in this centenary year,” he said.
With three of her MPs now publicly stating that unionism must prepare for a border poll, DUP leader Arlene Foster is facing questions on whether she endorses the call.
Sinn Féin MP Chris Hazzard noted there was an expanding discussion about Irish unity and what a new Ireland would look like.
“No one has anything to fear from Irish unity – it has huge potential for improving our economy, transforming our healthcare services and enhancing the prosperity of the whole island,” he said.
“There is room for everyone in that discussion and I would encourage people to take part in helping to shape a new and better Ireland.”
Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín said there was a “growing united Ireland wave” in the North that wanted the Dublin government to make the necessary preparations for ending partition.
“What does it say about Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens that the former Tory Chancellor, George Osborne can speak openly about this pivotal issue in Ireland’s future yet the Irish political establishment can’t,” he said.
Niall Murphy, the secretary of civic nationalism group Ireland’s Future, said the DUP’s changing stance made it more pressing for the British government to outline their proposed criteria for a referendum on Irish unity.
“Ireland’s Future believes the threshold set out in the Good Friday Agreement has been met and that a referendum date should be set for some time in the coming years,” he said.
Mr Murphy said the Dublin government needed to facilitate an “all-island Citizens’ Assembly” to discuss Irish unity, while the British government should “agree a date with others for a unity referendum to take place in the next number of years”.