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Boris in Northern Ireland - Are we heading towards a united Ireland?

This week Boris has made his first official visit to Stormont as Prime Minister to discuss the issue of the Irish border when the UK finally leaves the EU. With the UK expected to leave the EU by 31​st October 2019, this week’s trip has highlighted the mounting pressures to create a deal that involves the Irish border, ​with the leader of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland McDonald stating “the government must plan for unity” in the event of no-deal.


Backstop or hard-border?


Currently, there are only two options being considered for the Irish border once the UK leaves the EU. The first consideration is a backstop, a policy that would leave the Irish border open to free movement and trade, however, would leave the UK aligned with EU customs union, something that would automatically be lost in the event of no-deal and therefore bring an end to the backstop. If there is a no-deal, a hard border could form between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, which would bring an end to the free movement of people and goods, potentially creating tensions between the two countries, socially and economically.


Already the open border exists as a result of the Good Friday Agreement, a document signed by the Government of the UK and Northern Ireland and the Government of Ireland, which brought an end to the troubles in Northern Ireland in 1998. The agreement recognises the will of the people in Northern Ireland to decide whether they support the UK or a sovereign united Ireland and that it is by full agreement of the North and South to create a United Ireland.


However, with relations to the EU now in question, it begs the future of the Irish border, especially with most people in Northern Ireland voting to remain in the European Union in 2016.


A United Ireland?


With the current open border between the Republic and Northern Ireland serving as a gateway into the EU, it is highly possible that the people of Northern Ireland will want to keep the border open to satisfy the referendum result in Northern Ireland and prevent further tensions. However, this goes against the plans of Boris Johnson’s government who threaten to leave with no-deal if a deal hasn’t been agreed by 31​st​ October.

The unionist party Sinn Fein has already called for a vote on reunification in the result of a no-deal with Mary Lou McDonald describing it as “unthinkable” if a no-deal Brexit was not followed by a vote on reunification. The SDLP’s leader Nichola Mallon, another unionist party, stated that in the Prime Minister’s meeting at Stormont he delivered only ‘bluff and bluster around Brexit’ and that “It was very clear that he views and understands the situation through the eyes of the DU”’. On the other hand, the party in coalition with the Conservatives, the DUP are in full support of the plans drawn out by Boris Johnson’s government with its leader Arlene Foster saying that it’s the backstop “running a coach and horses” through the Good Friday Agreement and that ​“He will get across to those in Europe, and particularly in Dublin, the fact that they cannot break up the United Kingdom, because essentially, that’s what the backstop was doing.” However, it is a possibility that with the DUP in full support of remaining in the UK, while rival parties call for a united Ireland, that the case for a united Ireland is formed completely on bias. ​However, even members of Johnson’s own party, including Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson, have identified concerns by signing a letter of support towards Jeremy Hunt in the recent leadership election who has stated that the Conservatives have been “complacent” about the union since the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum.


With a deal still needed to be made before 31​st​ October, it’s difficult to judge whether a backstop or a hard border may result, however, it’s clear that if a hard border is reached it will strengthen the unionist’s cause. However, even if a referendum does result, if Northern Ireland votes to remain in the UK, the Irish Government will have to accept this. Furthermore, if a referendum on reunification is called both Scotland may push for independence referendums themselves in order to remain in the EU, with a recent opinion poll suggesting that 53% of the Scottish population would back leaving the UK if Mr Johnson was Prime Minister. However, Mr Johnson has confidently said: ​"If you Brexit sensibly and effectively, you take away so much of the ammunition of the SNP,". However, the question is, will his confidence be enough to reunify the UK and maintain peace in Northern Ireland?

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