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Brexit is neither a partition-maker, nor a partition-breaker - that decision will rest with Northern Ireland voters


Split decision: the possible reunification of Ireland has now been talked about for the first time since the IRA’s border campaign of the 1950s

Split decision: the possible reunification of Ireland has now been talked about for the first time since the IRA’s border campaign of the 1950s

Split decision: the possible reunification of Ireland has now been talked about for the first time since the IRA’s border campaign of the 1950s

So, could this EU-UK divorce pull in opposite directions on both islands in the European Union's north-western extremity? On this, John Bull's Other Island, we could become A Nation Once Again. Meanwhile, back on JB's main island, disunity may ensue, as Scotland peels off, leaving a very dis-United Kingdom.

A year ago, this writer would have said that the possible combination of both propositions - Scottish independence and Irish unity - was most unlikely, tending towards the impossible. Things have changed quite a bit since that 52%-48% Brexit Leave vote on June 23 last.

Devotees of Scottish independence from the UK, who lost 55% to 45% in the referendum in September 2014, have got a second wind. In Northern Ireland and in the Republic, reunification has been seriously talked about for the first time since the IRA's border campaign of the late-1950s.

A big part of the argument deployed by the Better Together campaign against Scottish independence was the common EU membership of the four countries comprising the United Kingdom.

Going back 25 years, the Scottish National Party (SNP) has consistently campaigned for an independent Scotland within the EU, frequently pointing to Ireland's experience.

The long-time SNP leader, Alex Salmond, blazed a trail debunking economic arguments against his country's potential to pay its own way. He also gloried in explaining how Scottish independence efforts had not, in the modern era, caused even serious injury to anyone - much less the lamentable loss of human life in comparable campaigns in Ireland.

In time, he will be ranked among the most brilliant politicians on these islands.

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Mr Salmond's successor, Nicola Sturgeon, has moved the party even further onwards, making huge electoral gains. Take five points off the September 2014 Scottish referendum result and you have a serious game on. Add the acrimonious Brexit fall-out - where Scotland asserts it is being hauled out of the EU against its 60%/40% Remain vote - and you hear a lot more up-tempo singing of Flower of Scotland.

Well, things may pan out like that. Then again, they may not.

On one hand, the tendency of the Scottish people towards independence remains strong. A poll last weekend showed 54% believe independence within 15 years is likely. Against that, Scottish people to a significant degree share their Welsh, English and Northern Irish neighbours' suspicion and ambivalence towards Brussels and the EU.

It's not hard to imagine arguments questioning the wisdom of swapping London interference for that of Brussels.

Coming back to Northern Ireland, it is already undeniable that the EU did more for ending partition than the tides of murderous and backward IRA campaigns.

The 1992 border-free EU single market banished those lines of shabby customs huts which, among other things, offered soft targets of attack to the IRA.

When EU Commission president Jacques Delors was planning the single market, Sinn Fein's EU policies were hard to distinguish from those of Margaret Thatcher. With one stroke, the EU demolished a big manifestation of partition.

When the happy dawn of the first IRA ceasefire happened in 1994, generous EU cross-border and peace grants flowed without demur. To date, the north's fragile peace has been backed by some €25bn in EU support grants.

While the Brexit campaign last year was a writ-large travesty of half-truths, misrepresentations and downright lies, it played out even more tragically in the north. Despite those peace grants and 87% of farm incomes coming from Brussels, the DUP advocated a Leave vote. Happily, Sinn Fein caught up with the SDLP and backed Remain. But the 56% in favour of staying with the EU should have been stronger.

The EU declaration last weekend, that an ultimately reunited Ireland would be an EU member in its entirety, was the most eye-catching part of the outcome.

But, in reality, the north guarantee merely recognises the deal East Germany got in 1990 after German reunification. It ensures the north does not end up in a membership queue between Albania and Turkey. The reality is that, in Scotland or the north, Brexit of itself is neither a partition-maker, nor a partition-breaker.

That decision will rest with the voters in the north and in Scotland.