A Conservative peer has said he has no fears for the safety of the Union but is concerned that a no-deal Brexit could increase support for a united Ireland.
Lord Jonathan Caine, an aide to six Secretaries of State who describes himself as a “staunch unionist”, said he did not believe “for a minute” that a united Ireland is going to happen.
But he said that if the UK leaves the European Union without a deal, accompanied by an “economic shock”, then people from a moderate nationalist background could consider supporting a reunification.
It appeared to be a move to qualify comments made to yesterday’s Irish News, in which he suggested the union could come under pressure if there is a hard border.
Ulster Unionist peer Lord Empey also warned yesterday that the ongoing Brexit chaos would seriously damage the Union if not resolved, and that it is imperative to work for a deal.
Lord Caine, the former Northern Ireland Office special adviser, said he thinks a majority of people in Northern Ireland will continue to support the Union “and that is something I would very much welcome”.
“In a speech I made recently I was at pains to stress that I believed the Union would prosper. I believe the best place for Northern Ireland is in a strong United Kingdom,” he told the Belfast Telegraph. DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson also said he has no fears over the future of the Union, whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.
The Lagan Valley representative said support for Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK is “strong” and that in the event of a border poll there would still be a “resounding majority” for the Union.
“We have always made clear we do not want a hard border,” said Mr Donaldson. “We recognise this is something that would cause disruption for border communities and would have an impact on the economy of Northern Ireland and also the economy of the Republic.
“That’s why we want a deal with the EU, a deal that recognises the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland and avoids a hard border.”
He added: “Research carried out on public attitudes since Brexit shows there is still strong support for the Union. We believe when all the uncertainty around Brexit is resolved, and we have secured a deal, the status quo will maintain. I have no fears over the Union.”
Lord Empey, however, claimed some were happy to sacrifice the Union to achieve Brexit.
He said: “With the changing parliamentary arithmetic, the DUP’s influence is evaporating. Thursday’s vote on a recess for the Conservative Party conference was defeated by 17 votes even with the DUP supporting the Government, so unionists can no longer rely on the DUP to ride to the rescue of the union.
“To secure the Union, we need widely based support in Westminster. Throwing in one’s lot with the ERG (European Research Group) wing of the Conservative Party will not achieve that. Indeed, there are some pro-Brexit supporters who would be happy to get a clean Brexit, even if that meant sacrificing Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.”
Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said: “We are in a very fluid situation and a no-deal Brexit would undoubtedly add to that. However, whatever lies ahead, this region only works through sharing and interdependence, and the priority must be to achieve and sustain reconciliation here.”
Ulster Unionist MLA Steve Aiken said everything must be done to avoid a backstop being imposed on Northern Ireland.