Unionists have rubbished the idea that Brexit could spell the end of Northern Ireland’s place in the UK ahead of today’s historic triggering of Article 50.
Both the DUP and UUP denied there is a prospect of a vote on reuniting the island arising out of Brexit, after the leader of the SDLP suggested the time may soon be right for the Province to “begin to explore our constitutional future” due to its pending exit from Europe.
Colum Eastwood said the British government has confirmed that an “automatic route back into the EU” exists for Northern Ireland in the form of Irish reunification.
A government letter, which he has now published, indicates that if Ireland was reunified then the six counties of Northern Ireland would become part of the EU once more.
The entire United Kingdom is now embarking on the process of quitting the EU, by invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
After that, the official exit is meant to take place in a maximum of two years.
Sinn Fein have previously said that Brexit “underlines” the need for a border poll, stating last year that the Irish government should “begin to plan for unity”.
But immediately after the Leave vote last June, SDLP leader Mr Eastwood had told the Assembly: “I do not think that this is the right time for a border poll, because I believe that we should have a border poll that we can actually win.”
Mr Eastwood on Tuesday unveiled the contents of a letter from Brexit Secretary David Davis.
In it, the leading Tory said if the bulk of voters in Northern Ireland opted to join a united Ireland, “Northern Ireland would be in a position of becoming part of an existing EU member state, rather than seeking to join the EU as a new independent state”.
It would be “for the EU Commission to respond to any specific questions about the procedural requirements for this to happen”, Mr Davis added.
The letter is dated March 20, but the SDLP only received it on Monday.
Mr Eastwood said he had been pressing the UK government on the matter for weeks.
“The principle of consent and provisions for a unity referendum in the Good Friday Agreement allow people here to make the decision to join a sovereign united Ireland and, in doing so, rejoin the EU,” said Mr Eastwood.
“It is welcome that the Brexit secretary has now conceded that argument.
“People in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. The people of Ireland voted for the Good Friday Agreement underpinned by Europe.
“If that context is to be ripped apart and our political foundations thrown into flux, then the time will be right for people here to begin to explore our constitutional future.”
The SDLP was asked if this represented a call for a border poll, and if so when.
It responded by saying that the “SDLP has always made the case that the reunification of Ireland is the biggest and boldest idea around”.
It added: “Scottish independence campaigners produced a 670-page plan outlining the path to independent nationhood and how it would operate. We must now get down to that work...
“The SDLP will lead that immediate work in partnership with parties across this island in the time ahead.”
Asked about the SDLP’s leader’s comments on the constitutional question, UUP Brexit spokesman Steve Aiken (who is also chairman of The Independent Council on Europe, a group which describes itself as lobbying for “the best possible deal for Northern Ireland in the upcoming Brexit negotiations”), said: “To be honest we’re moving into Article 50 being triggered.
“I don’t think that in any circumstances the Union is at risk. Northern Ireland is an integral part of the UK, and that will continue...
“The only way there’ll be a border poll is if the secretary of state deems there’s a necessary consensus that there is one called.
“I can’t see that happening.”
The DUP meanwhile said: “Whilst assessing hypothetical scenarios may be of some academic interest, the government has made it clear that the circumstances do not exist to call a border poll.
“The focus should therefore be on the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland and ensuring the best deal for the people of Northern Ireland as we exit the EU.
“Even in the circumstances where such a poll was called, all the available evidence demonstrates no meaningful change in support for Northern Ireland’s constitutional position.”
The Good Friday Agreement, which had been in large part driven by the SDLP and the UUP, did explicitly mention Northern Ireland’s membership of the EU in the text of the treaty.
The prefix of the agreement states that the Irish and UK governments both agree they are willing to “develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union”.