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PM May signs letter triggering EU exit - Northern Ireland could rejoin EU as part of united Ireland

By Cate McCurry

The SDLP has welcomed an indication from Brexit Secretary David Davis that Northern Ireland could rejoin the EU as part of a united Ireland.

In a letter to SDLP MP Mark Durkan, the Tory minister said that after Brexit, Northern Ireland would be able to become part of the European Union again as part of a united Ireland, as the Republic is an existing member state.

His comments come as Prime Minister Theresa May begins the process of leaving the EU today.

Mrs May last night signed the letter that formally marks the start of the process of leaving the EU. The historic document will be hand-delivered by a senior diplomat to EU chiefs.

Mr Davis' letter could also prove significant. He wrote: "If a majority of the people of Northern Ireland were ever to vote to become part of a united Ireland the UK Government will honour its commitment to enable that to happen."

He added: "In that event, Northern Ireland would be in a position of becoming part of an existing EU member state, rather than seeking to join the EU as a new independent state."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: "Over the course of the last number of weeks, SDLP MPs and negotiators have pressed the British Government to concede that, unlike any other part of these islands, we have an automatic route back into the European Union.

"The principle of consent and provisions for a unity referendum in the Good Friday Agreement allow people here to make the decision to join a sovereign united Ireland and, in doing so, rejoin the European Union.

"It is welcome that the Brexit Secretary has now conceded that argument. Brexit has shaken the tectonic plates of our constitutional landscape."

Mrs May will today call for Leave and Remain supporters to put the referendum behind them and make a success of Brexit as the country embarks on a "momentous journey".

The PM will tell MPs she will represent "every person in the UK", including EU nationals, when she takes to the negotiating table.

"It is my fierce determination to get the right deal for every single person in this country," she will say. "For, as we face the opportunities ahead of us on this momentous journey, our shared values, interests and ambitions can, and must, bring us together.

"We all want to see a Britain that is stronger than it is today.We all want a country that is fairer so everyone has the chance to succeed."

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK Mrs May did not visit in the run-up to triggering Article 50. Signed personally by Mrs May, a so-called "wet signature" in Civil Service jargon, the exit letter will be delivered to European Council president Donald Tusk by the British ambassador to the EU, Sir Tim Barrow, at 12.30pm. Once it has been accepted, Article 50 has been officially launched. At around the same time, Mrs May will rise in the House of Commons to make the statement confirming the two-year countdown to Britain's departure from the EU is finally under way.

Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said that "Brexit presents a very dangerous situation for Ireland, north and south". He added: "It is now crucial that the Irish Government acts on the Dail motion passed in February which calls for the north to be afforded special designated status within the EU so that the whole island of Ireland can remain within the EU together."

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