‘A dagger at the heart of the Union’: Brexit reality for Northern Ireland will fuel Nationalist hopes of Irish unity

Unionists are marking the centenary of Northern Ireland in 2021, but a new border in the Irish Sea will fuel Nationalist hopes of Irish unity.

To avoid a land border between north and south, the UK and EU agreed to one in the sea, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Northern Ireland retains access to the GB market, but is the only part of the UK to remain in the EU’s single market for goods.

It’s not how the First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster wanted to mark the centenary, but she doesn’t consider Irish unity inevitable.

She said: “I’m 50 years old. For all of my life, I have heard people talk about the forthcoming united Ireland.

“It hasn’t happened and that’s because I know that a lot of people, the greater number of people in Northern Ireland, know they’re much better off within the United Kingdom.”

But deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill disagrees. One hundred years after partition, she regards Brexit as a gamechanger.

The Sinn Fein deputy leader said: “I do think there is a stark question now opens up for people here. Its around which union do you wish to be part of?

“I think the stark question for many people is do you wish to be part of an inward looking, narrow Brexit Britain or do you wish to be part of a new and open and inclusive Ireland?”

Economically, some think Northern Ireland has the best of both worlds – still in the EU single market for goods, with access to the GB market.

But politically, it’s hugely symbolic that Northern Ireland will now be treated differently to the rest of the UK and that makes many Unionists nervous.

“It is the most significant constitutional development since partition,” claims Sir Reg Empey, the chief Unionist negotiator in the run-up to the Good Friday Agreement.

“I believe the Northern Ireland Protocol that Boris Johnson proposed is a dagger pointed at the heart of the Union and our task now as Unionists, will be to try and recover what we can from this damage.”

With the north-south land border overshadowed by an east-west sea border, Brexit certainly hasn’t answered the constitutional question.

Northern Ireland remains “a place apart”.

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