The Irish Times view on Brexit and Northern Ireland: a soft separation is imperative

There is growing cross-community support for the kind of soft Brexit which will ensure that there is no return of a hard border

Leaders of the Pro-Remain parties in Northern Ireland, (left to right) Naomi Long from the Alliance Party, Colm Eastwood from the SDLP, Michelle O’Neill from Sinn Féin and Steven Agnew from the Green Party, hold a joint press conference urging the UK to keep aligned with EU customs arrangements post-Brexit. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Leaders of the Pro-Remain parties in Northern Ireland, (left to right) Naomi Long from the Alliance Party, Colm Eastwood from the SDLP, Michelle O’Neill from Sinn Féin and Steven Agnew from the Green Party, hold a joint press conference urging the UK to keep aligned with EU customs arrangements post-Brexit. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

The joint statement by four of the parties at Stormont calling for Northern Ireland to remain in the EU single market and customs union is a positive intervention at a critical stage in the Brexit process.

The absence of the unionist parties is the obvious weak point of the initiative but the four-party statement chimes with a new opinion poll which shows that 69 per cent of people in the North want to remain in the European Union.

The statement calling for the North to remain in the single market and customs union was agreed by Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the Green Party. Party leaders Michelle O’Neill, Colum Eastwood, Naomi Long and Steven Agnew announced they had agreed the statement this week because the Brexit process was entering a critical stage and time was of the essence in advance of the European Council meeting next month.

Given that support for remaining in the EU has risen to 69 per cent from the 56 per cent in the North who voted to remain in 2016, there is obviously growing cross-community support for the kind of soft Brexit which will ensure that there is no return of a hard border.

If prime minister Theresa May manages to deliver a soft Brexit it seems the DUP will stay on board as long as the deal involves the entire UK and does not imply any special status for the North

That message appears to have permeated the Democratic Unionist Party, which has adopted a noticeably more nuanced approach to Brexit in recent times. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, the party’s MPs at Westminster gave vocal support to the faction in the Conservative Party pushing for the hardest possible Brexit with the UK leaving the customs union and single market.

The British government’s agreement last December to the Irish backstop and the prospect of some form of special status for the North has prompted a change of tune from the DUP with the party now focused on ensuring that the North should end up having whatever arrangements apply to the UK as a whole.

If prime minister Theresa May manages to deliver a soft Brexit it seems the DUP will stay on board as long as the deal involves the entire UK and does not imply any special status for the North.

There was some more food for thought for unionists in another set of poll results, published this week, which showed that Catholics in the North are much more likely to support a united Ireland if there is a hard Brexit in which the UK leaves the customs union and single market.

Conversely, only 28 per cent of Catholics would vote for a united Ireland if the UK changed its mind and remained in the EU. The message is that if the current frictionless border remains in place under whatever deal is agreed between the EU and the UK then the pressure for a united Ireland will ease. That is something all the parties in the North need to consider carefully.

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