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Mary McAleese: Brexit could create fresh division in Northern Ireland

By Adrian Rutherford

Brexit could destroy years of goodwill built up during the peace process in Northern Ireland, former Irish president Mary McAleese has said.

She warned the UK's impending divorce from the European Union would create fresh divisions between communities.

Earlier this week the Queen signed the Article 50 Bill into law, giving Prime Minister Theresa May the right to formally start talks to leave the EU.

The PM says she will trigger the process by the end of the month. However, Mrs McAleese has warned that Brexit - and the possibility of a hard border - could seriously jeopardise the progress made in Northern Ireland. She said: "If we're talking about Britain withdrawing from the single European market, (and) withdrawing from the customs union... we know that no matter who says 'everything will be all right on the day', it won't, because it has to change. If the border hardens, I'd be worried that hearts would harden too."

Mrs McAleese made the comments in an interview with Catholic weekly The Tablet.

Originally from Ardoyne in north Belfast, Mrs McAleese served as Irish President from 1997 to 2011, and has maintained a public profile since leaving office. Last year she campaigned for a Yes vote in the Republic's same-sex marriage referendum.

Now she has waded into the Brexit debate, claiming that Ireland has a "vested interest in ensuring that the relationship Britain maintains with the European Union is as strong as it can be".

The former President added that membership of the EU had played a huge part in improving Anglo-Irish relations, and was crucial at the time of the 1998 Belfast Agreement. Without it, she said, there might have been a different outcome to the vote in support of the peace process.

Mrs McAleese added: "I'm not sure, to be frank, if we had known at the time that Britain was going to pull out of the EU and bring Northern Ireland out... that people south of the border would have been as quick to sign off on changing the Irish constitution, because it was easier to do that (as) we were all members of the EU."

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