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EU leaders say a united Ireland would be an automatic member of the union — but no one really wants it

by David Gilbert
Apr 28 2017, 7:57am

The European Union is preparing a declaration which will ensure that, post-Brexit, a unified Ireland could automatically become part of the organization, just as east Germany did when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. However, while the move may cause headaches for authorities in London, there is still no real appetite among voters north or south of the Irish border for reunification.

The inclusion of the so-called “GDR clause” is seen as a victory for the Irish government, which is eager to ensure its position inside the EU after its closest and most important trading partner departs.

At a summit involving the leaders of all remaining 27 EU member state on Saturday, where the group will formally rubber stamp the EU’s Brexit negotiation policy, a separate declaration will be made which will ensure a unified Ireland would be automatically accepted into the EU.

When the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998, it included a clause which said that the U.K. would hold a referendum on Northern Ireland leaving the union if and when a majority of voters indicated they wanted one.

But the most recent opinion poll, conducted last September, showed that 63 percent of voters would vote for Northern Ireland to remain in the U.K., with just 22 percent supporting a united Ireland.

In the south, opinion is also split about the possibility of an all-island Ireland. Asked if they would want such an outcome if it cost the taxpayer an additional £9 billion ($11.5 billion) a year, a third said they would vote no, a third said they would vote yes, and another third said they were undecided.

“The impact in Ireland to this news is muted,” Dr. Elaine Byrne, a columnist for the Sunday Business Post, told VICE News. “People know that under the terms of the Good Friday agreement, it must first be agreed by referendum North and South, and any such referendum is unlikely to happen in the immediate future.”

Northern Ireland remains one of the biggest issues thrown up by the U.K. decision to leave the EU. Because it shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland, which remains an EU member state, there is the possibility of reinstating a “hard border” – complete with physical checkpoints and customs controls.

Complicating matters further is the fact that the power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland has stalled since Sinn Fein withdrew support for First Minister Arlene Foster, leading to a snap election. The parties have not been able to agree to a solution since, with the U.K. government extending the deadline to agree a deal to June 29.

Whitehall don’t care

While some have suggested that the EU’s declaration on a unified Ireland may invoke anger in Whitehall, Byrne disagrees. “Whitehall don’t care about Northern Ireland. If they did, they wouldn’t be implementing Brexit, which will inevitably re-introduce border controls in Ireland.”

This view is backed up by a U.K. government source who spoke to the Financial Times: “It is clear that the majority of the people of Northern Ireland continue strongly to support the current political settlement, including Northern Ireland’s continuing position within the U.K.”

The U.K. government is also facing calls from Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to hold a second referendum on leaving the U.K. A new opinion poll published this week suggests support for Scotland leaving the U.K. has dropped to 40 percent, below the 45 percent who voted that way in the first referendum back in September 2014.

In a letter published Friday, European Council President Donald Tusk said that Ireland was one of three critical factors which would need to be resolved before negotiations could take place on a new trade deal with the U.K.

“Progress on people, money and Ireland must come first,” Tusk said, adding: “Only once we collectively determine in the European Council that sufficient progress has been made on all these issues, will we be in a position to hold preparatory talks on the future relationship with the UK.”

The U.K. initially sought to carry out negotiations on leaving the EU at the same time as discussing a new trade deal with the bloc, but these hopes were dashed by European leaders. On Thursday Theresa May accused EU leaders of preparing to “line up to oppose us” over Brexit.