Belfast Telegraph

Some unionists would prefer united Ireland to Brexit, says Powell

By Shona Murray

Good Friday Agreement negotiator Jonathan Powell has said some unionists would prefer to live in a united Ireland over leaving the EU.

Mr Powell served as chief of staff for former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and was lead British negotiator on Northern Ireland.

He said: "There's an element of truth about a united Ireland saving pro-EU Northern Irish people from Brexit."

Mr Powell said anecdotally he had heard such a narrative from unionist friends who are worried about the damaging consequences of British withdrawal from the EU.

"You do hear stories of middle-class unionists in the golf and the rugby clubs saying 'if we're going to leave the EU, we might as well stay in as a United Ireland'," he added.

"Friends of mine tell me they're hearing this. You'd have never have heard that before."

However, rather than motivating some voters to support a united Ireland, Mr Powell said it may concentrate minds on reversing Brexit.

Mr Powell said talk of a united Ireland as a result of Brexit, "might change people's attitudes to Brexit... because it's not what they want".

Either way, he sees Brexit as the biggest threat to political stability and the Good Friday Agreement. In the referendum, 56% of Northern Ireland voters opted to remain in the EU.

"The percentage of people in Northern Ireland who voted to stay in the EU is more than the Catholic population," said Mr Powell, adding that it "figures" there would be some unionists prioritising EU membership.

But he pointed out that the numbers are so low that it is unlikely to trigger a border poll as prescribed under the Good Friday Agreement.

The Agreement says that a border poll can only be enacted if it "appears" to the Northern Ireland Secretary of State that a majority would express a wish that Northern Ireland "cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland".

Mr Powell said hardline Brexiteers such as Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Environment Secretary Michael Gove have "discovered very late in the day" that the Brexit they aspire to is impossible because of the agreement.

"It's notable that people who've never had much interest in Northern Ireland are suddenly experts on the subject and saying that it's run out of time and is no longer required," said Mr Powell.

But he added that "there's no way the British Government can get rid of the Good Friday Agreement" as it is a legally binding treaty registered with the United Nations Security Council.

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