Irish unification on voters' minds
By Shona Murray
The question of whether to hold a post-Brexit referendum on a united Ireland is dominating Thursday's (2 March) elections in Northern Ireland.
Following the success of the Good Friday Peace Agreement in 1998, such an issue was thought unlikely to emerge for several generations - if at all.
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But the economic and political ramifications of Britain’s decision to leave the EU has reopened the old debate.
Northern Ireland, a part of the UK which voted to remain in the EU last year, is heavily dependent on EU funding for economic and peace-related projects.
Some 87 percent of Northern Irish farmers’ income comes from the EU’s agricultural policy.
Farmers and other exporters also risk the loss of EU markets if Britain crashes out of Europe in an ugly way.
Last week, Irish leader Enda Kenny raised the issue at a press conference with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
Kenny called for any Brexit deal to include a provision that allowed Northern Ireland to unify with the Irish republic "whenever that might occur".
He said unification would make Northern Ireland part of the EU once more.
That kind of deal would be heavily opposed by Northern Ireland’s unionists, however.
The ruling Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) campaigned to leave the EU last year and see Brexit as a promise of lasting British sovereignty.
Kenny “should have stayed out of it”, Tom Elliot, a former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), a DUP ally, told EUobserver.
Unionists “won’t contemplate any sentence about Northern Ireland” returning to the EU or Ireland, he said.
Northern Ireland’s system provides for the nationalist and unionist communities to share power by each holding the posts of first minister or deputy first minister.
Since January 2016, DUP's Arlene Foster was first minister, with Martin McGuinness, from the republican Sinn Fein party, as deputy.
There was political turbulence in the run-up to the vote on other issues as well.
The DUP lost face in a heating fiasco in which a flawed renewable energy project cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds.
A DUP decision to pull £50,000 (€58,500) of funding for Irish language teaching also hit a raw nerve in a sensitive area..
The DUP’s leader, Foster, has also been accused of scare tactics in warning of the “threat” of Sinn Fein becoming the largest party and initiating a vote on Northern Ireland’s status.
The UUP’s Elliot told EUobserver that voters appeared to be “turned off” by the elections when he canvassed from door to door.
But the unionist party is expected to remain the largest one in parliament, even if its support goes down.
Turning to the upcoming Brexit talks, Sinn Fein MEP Matt Carthy called for EU negotiators, such as French politician Michel Barnier, to “bat” for the people of Northern Ireland.
He told EUobserver that under Northern Ireland’s peace accords everybody had the right to claim Irish citizenship if they wanted.
“Everyone in the north is effectively an EU citizen, but they’re being dragged out of the EU against their wishes”, he said.
He said that if Northern Ireland did not get a “special status” in the Brexit deal then there would be a “demand for an Irish unity poll”.
The Sinn Fein politician said the EU “understood” what might happen if Brexit led to the reimposition of a hard border between Ireland and Norther Ireland.
According to Aidan Regan, a scholar of international relations at Dublin City University, said a border policed by British officers would serve as “a reminder” of Irish separation.
He told EUobserver that sectarian identities in the region were “still as strong as they were in the 1980s” at the height of The Troubles.