North's EU membership automatic in the event of reunification
BRITISH Brexit secretary David Davis's assurance that the north would automatically become part of the EU in the event of Irish unification has been welcomed by SDLP leader Colum Eastwood.
In a letter to Foyle MP Mark Durkan, Mr Davis confirms that under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland – unlike an independent Scotland – would not have to undergo the complex 'Article 49' to become part of the post-Brexit EU if a majority of its people voted for Irish unity.
The precedent for such a scenario was set in 1990 when East Germany automatically joined the EU when it was reunified with West Germany.
While a slim majority of people in the UK voted in last June's referendum to sever ties with Brussels, 56 per cent of people in the north voted to remain in the EU.
Mr Durkan had first raised the issue at a recent meeting of Westminster's EU select committee.
In his response, Mr Davis said the British government was committed to the principle of consent but points out that it supports Northern Ireland's current constitutional status "as part of the UK but with strong links to Ireland".
However, he concedes that if the democratic will is for Irish unification then the north will rejoin the EU unhindered.
"If a majority of the people of Northern Ireland were ever to vote to become part of a united Ireland the UK government will honour its commitment to enable that to happen.
"In that event, 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."
The minister's statement is the first time British government has laid out its position on how Brexit would impact the reunification process.
Mr Eastwood said his party had been seeking clarity from the British government on whether the north would face an 'Article 49' application process in the event of Irish unification.
"Over the course of the last number of weeks, SDLP MPs and negotiators have pressed the British government to concede that unlike any other part of these islands, we have an automatic route back into the European Union," he said.
"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 European Union."
The SDLP said it was welcome that the Brexit secretary had now conceded the argument.
"Brexit has shaken the tectonic plates of our constitutional landscape – people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU; the people of Ireland voted for the Good Friday Agreement underpinned by Europe," he said.
"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."
Mr Eastwood said the British government’s "Brexit juggernaut" threatened to "smash through the fragile complexities of the Irish political dispensation".