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John Manley: In less than a year a United Ireland has moved from a vague aspiration to a potential reality - The Irish News
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John Manley: In less than a year a United Ireland has moved from a vague aspiration to a potential reality

An unintended consequence of Brexit could be the weakening of the union. Picture by Victoria Jones/PA Wire

If a week is a long time in politics then ten months is an exceedingly long time in which anything can happen. Ahead of last June's EU referendum, Irish unification was rarely mentioned in serious conversation, while the relative stability of the Stormont institutions suggested that even Sinn Féin was beginning to begrudgingly accept partition and the status quo.

But the UK's vote for Brexit changed all that.

With the referendum result in Scotland and Northern Ireland at odds with that in England and Wales, geopolitical differences within the union were glaringly exposed. In the months since, as the Scottish nationalists pressed the case for a second independence referendum and the previously reticent establishment parties in the south began talking openly about the possibility of unity, accepted certainties disappeared.

The political landscape looks distinctly different than it did a year ago, especially when you add the nationalist surge in last month's assembly election to the mix. Perhaps no greater illustration of this transformation is yesterday's Financial Times' front page story highlighting "concerns about a possible post-Brexit break-up of the UK".

The acceptance by European leaders that the north can rejoin the EU as part of a 32-county unified state without any great fuss is a long way from 50 per cent plus required in a border poll. However, taken in tandem with a similar acknowledgement last month from British Brexit Secretary David Davis, it represents a significant step in the right direction for nationalists. The precedent for such a scenario was set in 1990 when East Germany automatically joined the EU when it was reunified with West Germany.

If such a provision is agreed today by the leaders of the EU's 27 post-Brexit member states, it will also likely spur Scottish nationalists to seek to establish a corresponding arrangement in the event of Scotland voting to leave the UK.

It would also seem that the deeper we get into the Brexit divorce negotiations, the weaker the British government's hand appears to be. Theresa May and her government are increasingly isolated, while contrastingly Enda Kenny is ensuring the interests of Ireland – north and south – are at the centre of discussions.

European Council President Donald Tusk has warned the British that it must settle the issues of "people, money and Ireland" before negotiating its future relationship with the EU.

Because so few believed the UK would back Brexit nobody bothered to map out the full implications, and while most of those who voted to leave the EU last June believed they were strengthening the UK, the unintended consequence may well prove to be the complete opposite.

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