Northern Ireland news

Irish nationalism reawakened by Brexit vote, says Mike Nesbitt

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt said the Brexit vote had reawakened interest in a united Ireland. Picture by Mal McCann

THE shock result from Thursday's referendum has sparked a renewed interest in Irish nationalism, according to Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt.

The pro-EU MLA said an unexpected consequence of the Brexit vote was that nationalists, who were previously content in Northern Ireland, were now reviewing their outlook.

The 2011 census showed that more than a quarter of Catholics identified themselves as 'Northern Irish', while a survey carried out on behalf of the BBC in 2013 found just 21 per cent of people in the north would vote for a united Ireland in a referendum.

But according to Mr Nesbitt, nationalists who were previously "relaxed" with the constitutional status quo have been angered by the referendum result.

While the UK as whole backed a Brexit by a 51.9 per cent to 48.1 per cent, the north's electorate voted to remain by an eight point margin.

Mr Nesbitt's party campaigned for a Remain vote alongside Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance. The DUP was alone among Stormont's main parties in advocating a Brexit.

Speaking to The Irish News on Sunday, the Ulster Unionist leader said the uncertainty created by the referendum result would prompt many nationalists to re-evaluate their place in Northern Ireland.

"I think an unexpected consequence of the referendum result is to reopen the constitutional question and we now have people who were content in Northern Ireland last week thinking again about a united Ireland," he said.

"Quite a number of nationalists were relaxed with the constitutional arrangements but they will be reviewing this in terms of protecting their European identity – what they need as a reassurance is certainty, but there is none."

Mr Nesbitt said he accepted the outcome of last Thursday's vote but branded it a "very bad decision".

"At this stage to say the referendum is not binding is to disrespect the will of the people," he said.

The UUP leader said First Minister Arlene Foster needed to acknowledge the democratic will of Northern Ireland's electorate rather than celebrating the Leave victory.

"When it comes to negotiating who will the first minister be representing – will it be the DUP or Northern Ireland as a whole?," he said.

"It's her duty to act on behalf of the majority of people but we can't be sure she'll do that."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the referendum result had transformed the constitutional debate.

"The Brexit vote changes the context and that means the argument changes," he said.

"We we now need to speed up integration across Ireland not just to advance nationalism but to ensure we are no longer at the mercy of right wing people in England who have different interests than we do."

A Sinn Féin spokesman said: "It is the worst elements of right wing, jingoistic English nationalism that is threatening to take the people of the north of Ireland and Scotland, who both voted to remain, out of the EU. This is entirely undemocratic and the democratic deficit needs to be challenged."

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