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Brexit changes tone of border debate

There are clear indications that the tone of the debate over the future of the Irish border in a post-Brexit era is evolving more rapidly than almost anyone anticipated after the UK's 2016 EU referendum.

Irish nationalists were largely taken by surprise that a measure which always had the potential to produce the final break-up of the union was endorsed by a narrow majority of voters in England and Wales but not in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

While some unionists initially celebrated the result, others have increasingly realised the disarray of the British cabinet over the entire issue and the way in which the carefully presented position of the Irish government has won the support of every other EU state.

None of this means that moves towards wide-ranging change are inevitable in the short to medium term but the conflicting mood among prominent DUP figures over all the developments has been striking.

The party leader, Arlene Foster, caused something close to consternation within her own ranks earlier this month when she spoke during a documentary about how she would react to the prospect of a united Ireland.

Mrs Foster maintained she did not believe that events were moving in that direction but, addressing such an outcome, she said, `... If it were to happen then I am not sure if I were able to continue to live here.'

Another DUP MLA, Christopher Stalford, offered a very different assessment last week when he said he would never leave if a referendum resulted in the removal of the border.

Mr Stalford, in what was generally regarded as a thoughtful and measured contribution to the BBC's The View, said; ` "I was born and reared here. My family have been here for hundreds of years. This is our home."

The fact that high profile DUP representatives are openly discussing their thoughts on possible constitutional arrangements outside the UK does not necessarily mean that we are moving into a new era but it must be assessed in a mature way.

Nationalists across Ireland need to respond with a generosity of spirit and a recognition of the enormous sensitivities which will surround the wider debate which is plainly at a very early stage.

However, the Brexit upheaval is taking all sections of society into completely uncharted territory and what is emerging is that both nationalists and unionists cannot predict with any certainty what their relationship will be when the centenary of partition arrives in 2021.

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