The sensational result of the Northern Ireland Provincial election gives British Prime Minister Theresa May something else to ponder as she prepares for her “hard Brexit” departure from the European Union.
For the first time in the history of the Province its ruling legislature has a majority that is not automatically wedded to a continued link with the United Kingdom. The party which supports joining the Irish Republic, Sinn Fein, has made significant gains and now sits just one seat behind the pro-union Democratic Unionist Party.
When a swag of minor parties are taken into account, a vote within the new Stormont Parliament could easily favour unity with the south.
At the moment this seems unlikely, if only because such a vote could possibly rekindle the Troubles — the sectarian violence that plagued Northern Ireland for three decades and was ended only by the Good Friday power-sharing accords in the 1990s.
However, in last year’s referendum that resulted in a narrow overall United Kingdom majority to leave the European Union, Northern Ireland, along with Scotland, voted solidly for the Remain campaign, which must have meant that a good number of Unionists saw a better future for the Province as part of the EU.
Since then the situation has been exacerbated by May’s Government being unable to deal with the issue of the land border that separates Northern Ireland from the south. Under the Good Friday Accords there is unlimited access between the two jurisdictions. People driving from the south into the north are usually aware of the change only when they notice the road signs have changed from kilometres to miles.
The so-called hard Brexit could also result in the establishment of a hard border — and May knows this when she promises it will remain open only “as far as possible”. However, this would be a red rag to a bull to militant groups such as the Irish Republican Army, kept quiet at the moment because the present situation is unification in all but name under current EU arrangements.
While the situation that brought about the election was an exclusively domestic issue over a public heating supply scandal that might have implicated Democratic Unionist leader and First Minister Arlene Foster, its result has put the reunification of Ireland back on the agenda.
While a referendum on ending the partition of the island seems unlikely at present, as May’s Brexit plans advance and as the reality of life outside the EU becomes clearer, the demand for one may prove overwhelming.
As Northern Ireland expert and political commentator John Palmer points out, if Northern Ireland were to leave the UK the repercussions could trigger a full-blown British constitutional crisis “over and on top of the inevitable economic and social convulsions triggered by a final Brexit.”