Irish PM says no-deal Brexit could lead to united Ireland

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar warned a no-deal Brexit could see more people in the North question the union with England, Scotland and Wales. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (AFP/REUTERS) - A no-deal Brexit could lead to a united Ireland as more people in Northern Ireland would "come to question the union" with Britain, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has said.

His comments came after new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the current Brexit deal was unacceptable and set preparations for leaving the EU without an agreement as a "top priority" for his right-wing government.

Tension around the withdrawal deal centres on the so-called Irish backstop - a mechanism designed to preserve the bloc's single market and prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.

Varadkar warned a no-deal Brexit could see more people in the North question the union with England, Scotland and Wales. The question of the unification of Ireland and British-ruled Northern Ireland will inevitably arise.

"People who you might describe as moderate nationalists or moderate Catholics who were more or less happy with the status quo will look more towards a united Ireland," Varadkar said on Friday (July 26) at a summer school in county Donegal, the Irish Independent newspaper and other media reported.

"And increasingly you see liberal Protestants, liberal unionists starting to ask the questions as to where they feel more at home.

"Is it in a nationalist Britain that's talking about potentially bringing back the death penalty and things like that? Or is it part of a common European home and part of Ireland?" said Vardakar, whose heavily trade-dependent nation stands to lose most from a messy EU-UK split.

He also warned that a so-called hard Brexit could undermine Scotland's place in the United Kingdom.

Vardakar said there could be no Brexit deal without the Irish backstop, which Johnson is committed to abolishing.

Johnson has staked his reputation on bringing Britain out of the EU by the current deadline of Oct 31, meaning that if new negotiations are refused the UK would crash out without a deal in place.

Vardakar's comments on Friday prompted a sharp rebuke from Northern Ireland's largest pro-British party, the Democratic Unionist Party, whose member of parliament Ian Paisley said the Irish government's language was "unhelpful and unnecessarily aggressive."

Asked at a politics forum if the Irish government intended to begin to publicly plan for a united Ireland, Varadkar said it did not at present as it would be seen as provocative by pro-British unionists in Northern Ireland.

"But in the event of a hard Brexit, those questions do arise," he said.

"If Britain takes Northern Ireland out of the European Union against the wishes of the majority of people in Northern Ireland - takes away their European citizenship and undermines the Good Friday Agreement - in doing so, those questions will arise, whether we like it or not," Varadkar said at the MacGill Summer School conference in the northwest of Ireland.

"We are going to have to be ready for that." In the 2016 referendum, 56 percent in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU.

Over 3,600 people died in three decades of violence between Irish nationalists seeking a united Ireland and the British security forces and pro-British "unionists".

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended the violence, foresees the holding of referendums on both sides of the border on uniting the island if London and Dublin see public support for that. The British government says it does not believe there is sufficient support now.

Varadkar also suggested voters in Scotland, where 62 percent voted to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum, might make a new push for independence.

"Ironically one of the things that could really undermine the union - the United Kingdom union - is a hard Brexit, both for Northern Ireland and for Scotland. But that is a problem that they are going to have to face," Varadkar said.

Separately, Ireland's foreign minister said on Friday that Johnson had deliberately set Britain on a "collision course" with the EU over Brexit negotiations.

"He seems to have made a deliberate decision to set Britain on a collision course with the European Union and with Ireland in relation to the Brexit negotiations," Simon Coveney was quoted by Irish state broadcaster RTE as saying.

European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker told Johnson on Thursday that EU officials have no mandate to renegotiate the Brexit withdrawal agreement, and chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said eliminating the Irish backstop was "unacceptable".

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