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Tanáiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney Leah Farrell/
Border poll

Coveney says talking about a united Ireland as part of Brexit debate is 'hugely unhelpful'

The Tánaiste said the issue could “create an even more divisive debate and atmosphere in Northern Ireland, which is the last thing we need”.

SIMON COVENEY HAS said discussing a united Ireland as part of the Brexit debate is “not helpful”.

The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs said the issue could “create an even more divisive debate and atmosphere in Northern Ireland, which is the last thing we need”. 

There has been speculation that Britain leaving the European Union could eventually lead to the unification of the Republic and Northern Ireland.

Earlier this month, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said a “crash” no-deal Brexit moves the timeline for a border poll on a united Ireland forward.

“In the event of a crash … certainly the issue of a referendum on unity would move, advance, very, very quickly,” McDonald said on 11 December. 

Coveney said Sinn Féin’s calls for a border poll are a “hugely unhelpful intervention” done for “party political reasons”. 

When asked about the possibility of a united Ireland in the next 10 to 20 years, Coveney said: “That’s a sensitive question at the moment given the pressures of Brexit. I try to be very careful with what I have said on this issue. We don’t really want a constitutional change and a debate around that to be part of the Brexit debate. It’s not helpful.

It creates more tension on top of what is already a very tense and divisive debate in Northern Ireland and Westminster.

“That issue is dealt with comprehensively under the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and under the principle of consent which we absolutely support.”

Peace process 

The Tánaiste said the Irish government and nationalists need to “reach out to unionism in a more effective way than perhaps has been possible in recent years”.

“We are all neighbours on this island and we have to learn to live together. Unfortunately the threats of Brexit have caused a lot of tensions that we wish weren’t happening.

Unionists feel threatened by Brexit, nationalists feel threatened by Brexit, and others who are neither in Northern Ireland feel hugely frustrated by Brexit because of the paralysis that has come with it in the context of politics in Northern Ireland and the ability to get a devolved government back up and running.

“So I think we need to take this step by step. What we are dealing with now is Brexit. What we are trying to do is to protect the peace process and the status quo rather than looking to change the constitutional arrangements on this island as a result of Brexit.”

Coveney added that the Irish government is “trying to accommodate different perspectives in the context of Brexit”.

“If we can do that we create a platform, hopefully, and a trust between unionist and nationalist parties – and of course the Alliance as well and the Green Party – that can hopefully allow us on the back of finding a way through Brexit get devolved government back up and running again so we have the mechanisms of the GFA functioning,” he stated.

Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since January 2017. 

House of Commons vote 

Meanwhile, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has called on the United Kingdom to “get your act together” in relation to Brexit. 

Earlier this month, British Prime Minister Theresa May postponed a House of Commons vote on the draft Withdrawal Agreement so she could seek additional assurances on the backstop element of the deal. The vote is now expected to take place in January. 

Many politicians have raised concerns about the backstop, which aims to avoid a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland and could see the North stay aligned to some EU rules.

The Democratic Unionist Party believes the backstop threatens the United Kingdom and could lead to a trade border in the Irish Sea.

Preparations are being made at British, Irish and European level for a no-deal Brexit, in case an agreement is not reached ahead of the official withdrawal date of 29 March. 

With reporting by Christina Finn 

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