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Michelle O'Neill of Sinn Fein

Irish unity has taken on a new dynamic as result of Brexit

Michelle O'Neill


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A Border Communities Against Brexit poster before its unveiling at a demonstration in Carrickcarnon on the Irish border (Brian Lawless/PA)

A Border Communities Against Brexit poster before its unveiling at a demonstration in Carrickcarnon on the Irish border (Brian Lawless/PA)

A Border Communities Against Brexit poster before its unveiling at a demonstration in Carrickcarnon on the Irish border (Brian Lawless/PA)

Tonight, after 47 years of membership, the North will leave the European Union. This decision is entirely contrary to the democratically expressed wishes of a cross community majority of the electorate in the North, the majority of elected members of the devolved Assembly and the recently elected MPs.

Brexit has been foisted upon the people of this island without our consent. This is absolutely unacceptable to our communities, businesses and the agriculture industry.

The European Union isn't without flaws; it does have imperfections - Sinn Fein is not naive to this. We believe there needs to be a radical reform of the European Union as it currently stands, however, it is indisputable that the European Union has been a critical partner of peace in Ireland.

The European Union has provided political and financial aid which has led to greater economic and social progress across all of the island.

Reflecting the critical role of the EU in advancing our society and the role that it can still play in doing so, Sinn Fein developed the case for designated special status for the North.

Designated special status took into account and respected the democratically expressed wishes of the majority of citizens in the North to stay in the European Union.

Sinn Fein has worked constructively with the Irish government and has led the pro-remain parties in the North in common cause and defence of the interests of citizens since 2016. We have taken Irish interests to the heart of political institutions in Brussels, Washington, Dublin and London.

Boris Johnson has committed to concluding the transition period for Brexit before 2021 - this tight timeframe to successfully negotiate a deal poses a significant challenge for the British government and the European Union.

On this basis, a no-deal is a real risk.

If this happens, it is absolutely vital that the provisions to prevent a hard border come into effect and the Good Friday Agreement is protected in all of its parts.

As Deputy First Minister and Joint Head of Government, I will again work with the Irish and British governments, the pro-remain alliance and European Union to ensure that their commitments to protect the Good Friday Agreement and prevent a hard border in Ireland are lived up to.

It is my firm objective to avoid slowing down trade for businesses - both on an East/West and North/South basis. While Brexit poses many challenges to this island, there also exists an opportunity to build a new Ireland.

I see no contradiction in declaring and delivering on our firm commitment to power sharing with unionism in the Stormont Assembly while also initiating a mature and inclusive debate about new political arrangements which examine Ireland's future beyond Brexit.

Irish unity has taken on a new dynamic as a result of Brexit.

In April 2017, the European Union made an important and ground-breaking declaration.

It declared that in the event of Irish reunification that the North would automatically re-join the EU with the rest of Ireland.

Many citizens of a British or unionist identity are now considering the merits of reunification - not to become republicans, but to remain European. Citizens of all traditions are considering which union best serves their interests - the European Union or the United Kingdom.

The choice is clear - a new, inclusive and open Ireland or an inward-looking, insular Britain.

A referendum on the constitutional future of our island is coming. The basis for this referendum is within the Good Friday Agreement - this agreement cannot be cherry-picked.

An incoming Taoiseach cannot continue to bury their head in the sand, as Leo Varadkar has done, they cannot ignore the stark reality.

The Irish government must not be a passive or neutral actor on Irish unity, it must be an active advocate for unity.

There is an obligation on the Irish government to prepare and to plan for Irish unity.

A failure to do so is a derogation of duty by the Irish government to safeguard the interests of the Irish nation - defending the interests of all of this island against Brexit is paramount.

This means the Irish government needs to begin to plan for a referendum, promote the discussion and build a vision for a new and united Ireland.

The only people not talking about Irish unity is the Irish government.

In government, Sinn Fein will not be passive. Without hesitation, we will establish a national citizens' assembly that encompasses all traditions on this island.

This assembly will actively encourage discussion and plan for the unity referendum.

The simple reality is that Brexit has exposed the failure and undemocratic nature of partition - a political problem, which requires a political solution.

  • Michelle O'Neill is Deputy First Minister and vice-president of Sinn Fein
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