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Kingdom divided

Looks like Brexit may break up the U.K. as Ireland joins Scotland's calls to leave union

Looks like Brexit may break up the U.K. as Ireland joins Scotland’s calls to leave union

The U.K. is facing revolt from within. Just hours after Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon called for a second referendum on leaving the union, Sinn Féin did the same in Northern Ireland, saying that a referendum on creating a united Ireland should be carried out “as soon as possible” because Brexit would be “a disaster for the people of Ireland.”

Michelle O’Neill, who succeeded Martin McGuinness as leader of the party in Northern Ireland in January, called for the referendum and said the decision was a result of looming Brexit negotiations, adding that it was now “over to the people to have their say in relation to the future.”

O’Neill added that the British government in Westminster was “continuing to refuse to listen to the majority views” in Northern Ireland. However, the last major opinion poll conducted on the matter showed that just just 22 percent of voters supported a united Ireland — though this was up from 17 percent in 2013. No opinion polls have been conducted yet in 2017.

Just like Scotland, a majority of Northern Irish voters voted to remain within the EU in last June’s referendum, but being dragged out of Europe could strike a much bigger impact on Northern Ireland than other parts of the U.K., given its land border with the Republic of Ireland to the south. If the U.K. ends up departing the customs union as a result of Brexit, it might mean a tariff being imposed on all goods passing between the north and south — something that would likely cause enormous problems for businesses on both sides of the border.

Here’s what you need to know:

  • O’Neill was speaking during a break in talks at government buildings in Stormont aimed at restoring the North’s power-sharing agreement, following last week’s election. That vote saw Sinn Féin make significant gains, and it now holds just one seat less than the largest party, the Democratic Unionist Party.
  • The Good Friday Agreement, which was signed in 1998, recognizes that Northern Ireland remained part of the U.K., but it also provides for a referendum to be held on a United Ireland. But, this can only happen with  the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland. The U.K. government is bound by the result of such a referendum.
  • Most politicians in the Republic don’t think the time is right for a border poll. Charlie Flanagan, minister for foreign affairs, said the calls for a referendum are “premature,” adding there was a need to focus on striking a deal on power-sharing before looking at anything else.
  • If the parties cannot agree to a power-sharing deal before March 27, then another snap election would be called — the third in three months — and if no resolution is found following that vote, then Northern Ireland would face the return of direct rule from Westminster.
  • Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon on Monday called for a second referendum on leaving the U.K., sparked by the fact the government is set to trigger Article 50 in the coming days and officially begin the process of leaving the EU. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday warned that calling for a referendum could cause “huge uncertainty,” adding that she would refuse calls for a vote before 2019, when the U.K. is expected to finally leave the EU.

Some politicians in Wales have also suggested that it could leave the U.K. Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood said that if a second Scottish referendum resulted in the country leaving the union, then it would “lead to the end of the U.K. as a state.” In that situation, she said, “Wales would need to decide its own future.”

Cover: (AP/Mariusz Smiejek)

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