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Brexit ignites the debate about a united Ireland

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This is the fourth part of an FT series asking whether the UK is heading for break-up.

Dawn had barely broken on the morning after the June 2016 Brexit referendum when Martin McGuinness demanded a plebiscite on whether Northern Ireland should leave the UK and unite with the Irish Republic.

The leader of the nationalist Sinn Féin party told the media that because 56 per cent of Northern Irish voters had voted to remain in the EU, the British government must now accept there was a “democratic imperative” to hold a so-called border poll.

McGuinness was swiftly rebuffed by the British government, and the former IRA commander died in 2017. But less than five years after the Brexit referendum, the debate about Northern Ireland’s constitutional future is raging with a new intensity as stresses caused by Brexit and the possibility of an independent Scotland reopen questions of identity and allegiance that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement had looked to push off into the distant future.

The agreement aligned London and Dublin behind power-sharing in Northern Ireland between mainly Protestant unionists, who aim to preserve the region’s place in the UK, and largely Catholic nationalists, who want it to join the Irish Republic. The deal largely brought an end to 30 years of sectarian violence that claimed more than 3,500 lives.

But Brexit created new trading arrangements between Great Britain and Northern Ireland that have simultaneously unnerved unionists and, opinion polls show, emboldened nationalists who see the region’s placement within the bloc’s economic orbit as another stepping stone towards a united Ireland. The centenary of Ireland’s partition falls on May 3.

Even those in the middle ground, such as Stephen Farry of the cross-community Alliance party, recognise that Brexit has upset the delicate equilibrium of the Good Friday Agreement.

“Brexit has cracked Northern Ireland even though its constitutional status hasn’t changed,” Farry, the MP for North Down, told the Financial Times.

Chart of a Northern Ireland survey which reveals that Northern Ireland citizens see unification as more likely following Brexit

The Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit withdrawal agreement sought to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland that would damage the peace process. But by placing Northern Ireland under the EU’s customs rules and single market for goods, the protocol created a regulatory border between the region and Great Britain in the Irish Sea, which infuriated unionists.

Northern Ireland’s first minister Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist party, has called for the suspension of the protocol. Such has been the controversy that checks on food arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain were briefly suspended in February after threats were made against border inspection officials. Recent violence in parts of the region has been partly blamed on unionist anger at the Brexit deal, although other factors appear to have had a major role in the disturbances.

Whether the fallout from Brexit will trigger a border poll on a united Ireland — which under the Good Friday Agreement is widely interpreted to mean referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic — is difficult to predict.

The agreement states that a decision to hold a referendum in Northern Ireland rests solely in the hands of the UK secretary of state responsible for the region, who is required to trigger a plebiscite “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting” would support a united Ireland.

A January survey by pollster LucidTalk found 47 per cent of respondents in Northern Ireland wanted the region to remain in the UK, with 42 per cent favouring it becoming part of a united Ireland — an outcome that shows the criteria for a referendum are currently not met.

The more deeply researched Northern Ireland Life and Times surveys, conducted annually by Queen’s and Ulster universities since 1998, have consistently found support for unification at a little over 20 per cent.

A stacked area chart of Northern Ireland citizens' views on the long-term future of Ireland showing that unification has had minority support since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement

Lord Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the DUP, Northern Ireland’s largest party, said there were no grounds for a border poll and “I don’t see it happening anytime soon”. Foster went further, saying last month that a united Ireland would be an “act of self harm”.

But Gerry Carlile, chief executive of Ireland’s Future, a campaign group set up after Brexit to push for a border poll, said broad metrics indicate that Northern Ireland is rapidly closing in on the point where a referendum will be necessary.

He highlighted how Northern Ireland returned nine nationalist MPs to Westminster at the last election — compared with eight unionists — and said this year’s census was widely expected to show Catholics making up a majority of the region’s population for the first time.

Gerry Carlile says metrics suggest a referendum will soon be necessary © Charles McQuillan/FT

Next year’s elections to the Northern Ireland assembly also raise the prospect of Sinn Féin becoming the largest party at Stormont, meaning the nationalists will take the position of first minister.

Other potential factors, such as a repeat of the collapse of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive that happened between 2017 and 2020, might also shift public opinion enough to trigger a border poll.

Proponents of a referendum sooner rather than later, such as Carlile, also say that US president Joe Biden’s proud declaration of his Irish ancestry could add impetus to the case for a border poll, since a united Ireland would hope to tap some funding from Washington to cushion the costs of transition.

Another key factor in any poll is how the Irish government approaches the topic. 

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, which share power in Dublin, both trace their roots to the ideology of a united Ireland but are tepid on pushing for a poll now. 

Micheál Martin, Irish taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil, told the FT the Good Friday Agreement had not yet achieved its full potential because of the stop-start nature of Northern Ireland’s devolved government.

Is the UK heading for break-up?

Ahead of elections to the Scottish and Welsh parliaments on May 6, the FT is examining whether the UK’s four nations are likely to stick together.

Part 1: What is the economic cost of Scottish independence and can the country afford it?

Part 2: Has Boris Johnson got a plan to save the UK from break-up?

Part 3: What is the future shape of government in Wales as interest in independence rises?

Part 4: Is Northern Ireland on an inexorable path to a united Ireland?

He wants to see further progress with the agreement, along with greater all-island co-operation on education, research, sport, tourism and trade, before opening a conversation about a united Ireland.

Martin said a border poll would not happen in the lifetime of his government, which runs to 2025. If people wanted to move faster “that’s the rock people will perish on”, he added. “Patience is what is required if you want to get agreement.”

John Bruton, Ireland’s Fine Gael taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, said his back of the envelope calculations suggested it could cost Ireland “€13bn or €14bn” a year to support Northern Ireland after unification, but added any financial obstacles could be overcome.

Sinn Féin, the second-biggest party in the Irish parliament, wants the government to begin laying the groundwork now for a border poll that could happen within five years. 

Pearse Doherty, deputy leader of Sinn Féin’s parliamentary group, said the referendum preparations were vital to addressing “really hard questions”, including how to reassure unionists that “their Britishness will not be eroded . . . their identity, their traditions, their customs will be valued in a new type of Ireland”. 

If and when a border poll is called, experts are clear that the result will paradoxically not be determined in Northern Ireland’s old bastions of sectarianism, but by a new centre ground.

Chart of Norther Ireland citizen's sense of identity which reveals a dual identity. 33% see themselves as Irish or 'more Irish than British',  45% see themselves as British or 'more British than Irish', 12% seeing themselves as equally British and Irish.

Katy Hayward of Queen’s University Belfast, who processes the Northern Ireland Life and Times surveys, said it was a “non-aligned” group in the region — comprised of about a third of Protestants and Catholics who do not think of themselves as either unionists or nationalists — that would have the casting vote on Irish unity.

“It is this middle ground that will make the difference in a border poll,” she added. “The question is firstly, will they vote? And, secondly, what will persuade them to vote one way or another?”

The answer to the second question can be found in places such as Lisburn, a market town on the river Lagan eight miles south-west of Belfast that was once a DUP stronghold but is rapidly shifting to the centre ground. 

At the 2019 general election, Sorcha Eastwood of the Alliance party saw its vote grow by 17 per cent across the Lagan Valley constituency, as she campaigned on better public services while embracing socially liberal attitudes to issues such as abortion.

She said a “conversation” about what a united Ireland might look like had begun — but that it must continue slowly and avoid repeating the mistake of the Brexit referendum that caused upheaval without any real planning for what the future could involve. 

Sorcha Eastwood: ‘If you frame [a] conversation about a possible new future in a longer term way, then it moves to a different place’ © Charles McQuillan/FT

Eastwood, a councillor in Lisburn, highlighted the back of the British army’s Thiepval barracks across a rugby playing field that today is pristine grassy stripes but in October 1996 was covered in rubble after a double IRA car bombing.

“If you go too fast, some people here will always see a united Ireland as rewarding those horrific acts of the past, but if you frame that conversation about a possible new future in a longer term way, then it moves to a different place,” she said.

For this all-important unaligned section of the electorate, it will be policies including healthcare and pensions, rather than unionist or nationalist identity, that decide the way votes are cast. 

Samantha Evans, a 37-year-old suicide prevention counsellor in Lisburn who grew up in a staunchly unionist family but has since pulled away from those roots, said she was typical of the new post-identity Northern Irish voter. 

Samantha Evans has pulled away from her unionist roots © Charles McQuillan/FT

“If it ever came down to a border poll, I would want to know where the financial benefits would be coming from,” she added, listing her top concerns as Ireland’s membership of the euro and the risk of losing access to free NHS healthcare.

“There will have to be huge questions and guarantees before any middle of the line Protestant or Catholic like me would decide either way.”



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Fears grow over media independence in Czech Republic

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European media groups have warned that the independence of the Czech public broadcaster is under mounting pressure, ahead of a parliamentary election in the central European nation later this year.

Czech Television (CT) remains one of the few independent public broadcasters in central Europe, where governments in countries such as Poland and Hungary have reduced public media to their mouthpieces.

However, media groups and Czech opposition politicians are worried that new appointments to CT’s governing body, which are due to be voted on in the next parliamentary session starting today, could lead to CT’s autonomy being undermined.

Czech MPs are set to pick four new members of CT’s governing body, the Council. The Council does not directly control the broadcaster’s content, but has the power to fire its director-general.

Opposition MPs have claimed that candidates on the shortlist for the four open positions on the 15-strong Council have been picked not for their media expertise but because their views align with those of the ANO party of prime minister Andrej Babis and its allies.

Czech Republic prime minister Andrej Babis owned various media titles including two big newspapers through his company Agrofert © AP

MPs from ANO deny this. “For us, the only criterion is whether the candidates have met all the requirements for selection required by law,” Stanislav Berkovec, an ANO MP, told the website iRozhlas.cz last month.

However, the situation in Prague has prompted the European Broadcasting Union, which represents public service media, to issue an unusually strong warning about governments across Europe “trying to silence opposition voices by restricting freedom of the press”.

EBU director-general Noel Curran and Delphine Ernotte, the chief executive of France Televisions and EBU president, have written to Czech MPs urging them to protect the independence of the national broadcaster.

“In recent months, it has become alarmingly clear that the Czech Republic’s government is trying to exert pressure on [the independence of Czech Television], directly and indirectly,” the EBU said in a statement.

“It may be that only pressure from outside will preserve the hard-won independence of a public-service broadcaster that is crucial . . . to the democratic future of a nation often seen as a bulwark against authoritarianism in central and eastern Europe.”

The Vienna-based International Press Institute, a media watchdog, has expressed similar concerns, warning that the manoeuvring around the Council appointments could, in the worst case, pave the way for the removal of the current director-general of CT, Petr Dvorak.

“We find it hard to avoid the conclusion that the real aim is to fill the CT Council with enough figures who are critical of Dvorak to ensure that there is a majority to vote to dismiss him when the opportunity arises,” it said.

Observers say that CT’s independence is particularly important, given that many private Czech media groups are controlled by oligarchs. Prime minister Babis, himself a billionaire, owned various titles including two big newspapers through his company Agrofert, before he put his assets in trust in 2017.

“Czech public television, especially its information channel, is one of the most trusted of sources of information, especially concerning the pandemic . . . It is also one of the few which has overall reach and can get to everyone in the country,” said Martin Ehl, a senior journalist at Hospodarske Noviny, a leading Czech daily, and senior associate at the think-tank Visegrad Insight. “It is very important in this media environment, where different oligarchs own different media.”

The battle in Prague comes ahead of a parliamentary election in October, in which Babis’s ANO, which has headed a coalition government for the past four years, is facing a serious challenge from opposition parties. A poll last month put ANO second behind the centrist Pirate party.

The battle also has echoes of conflicts around Europe as public broadcasters in various countries are fighting to preserve their independence against governments who are aggressively seeking to influence output, or hobble the organisations by cutting taxpayer funding. 

Poland and Hungary are the most striking examples of how public broadcasters have been turned, through management and staff changes, into enthusiastic champions of the ruling party’s illiberal political agenda. But MEPs and campaigners fear the tactics are spreading to countries such as Slovenia, the Czech Republic and beyond. 

Adam Cerny from the Czech journalists’ group, Syndikat Novinaru, said there was “increasing risk” that the Czech Republic could go in the same direction as Poland and Hungary. But he expressed scepticism that ANO would want to have a such a big fight before the election. “I don’t think that Babis wants open political confrontation because of Czech TV,” he said.



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CDU leadership backs Armin Laschet’s bid to be German chancellor

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Armin Laschet won a key victory in his campaign to succeed Angela Merkel when the party he leads, the Christian Democratic Union, backed him as their candidate for chancellor in September’s Bundestag election.

The CDU governing executive’s decision to back Laschet was a setback for Markus Söder, governor of Bavaria, who has also laid claim to the title.

The move was expected, but could prove controversial. Söder is by far the more popular politician, and many CDU MPs had argued in recent days that the party would have a much better chance of winning September’s election with Söder as their candidate.

After throwing his hat into the ring on Sunday, Söder said he would accept the CDU’s decision. However, it is still unclear whether his party, the Bavarian Christian Social Union, will accept Laschet as the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate. The CSU’s executive is meeting later on Monday.

Sunday’s events threw the process for finding a successor to Merkel, who will step down this year after 16 years as Germany’s leader, into confusion. The CDU and CSU traditionally field a joint candidate for chancellor: that person is usually the leader of the CDU, which is by far the larger party.

Volker Bouffier, governor of the western state of Hesse, said the CDU’s executive had unanimously backed Laschet at a meeting in Berlin on Monday morning. He added, however, that no formal decision had been made on the issue.

Bouffier said the executive had made clear “that we consider [Laschet] exceptionally well-suited and asked him to discuss together with Markus Söder how we proceed”. He added that “the current polls should not determine the decision over [who we choose as] candidate”.

Since Laschet was elected CDU leader in January, the party has suffered a precipitous slump in the polls and that created an opening for Söder. He has frequently argued that the CDU/CSU’s joint candidate should be the politician with the best chances of winning in September.

Voters have blamed the CDU for the government’s recent missteps in its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, in particular the slow pace of Covid-19 vaccinations. Revelations that a number of CDU and CSU MPs earned huge commissions on deals to procure face masks also badly damaged the party’s image.

The malaise in the CDU was highlighted last month when it slumped to its worst ever election results in the two states of Baden-Württemberg and Rhineland-Palatinate, which for decades had been Christian Democrat strongholds. National polls currently put support for the CDU/CSU at between 26 per cent and 28 per cent, way down on the 33 per cent it garnered in the last Bundestag election in 2017.

There was more bad news at the weekend for Laschet, who as well as being CDU leader is also prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state. A poll for broadcaster WDR in NRW found that only 26 per cent of voters in the state are satisfied with the work of the regional government Laschet leads and only 24 per cent of voters consider him a suitable candidate for chancellor.

The slide in the CDU’s fortunes contrasts with the rise of the Greens. The party garnered 8.9 per cent of the vote in 2017 and is now polling at 23 per cent. It is seen as a racing certainty that it will be part of Germany’s next government.



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EU and UK edge towards accord on trade rules for Northern Ireland

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The UK and the EU are making progress in talks on how to apply post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland, raising hopes of an agreement that could help reduce tensions that have spilled over into violence on the streets of Belfast.

Officials on both sides said that recent days of intensive contacts had given cause for optimism that the UK and EU can craft a “work plan” on how to implement the Northern Ireland protocol, which sets the post-Brexit terms for goods to flow between the region and Great Britain. EU Brexit commissioner Maros Sefcovic and his UK counterpart David Frost may meet to review progress this week. 

“They are advancing on a technical level and probably we will see a [Frost-Sefcovic] meeting rather sooner than later”, said one EU diplomat, while cautioning progress depended on firm commitments from the UK and its “unequivocal support” for the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Other EU diplomats and officials said strong UK engagement in the technical talks on implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol had raised hopes that an understanding could be reached. 

“The mood seems to have warmed up a bit — the tone of the discussions is quite good,” said one British official. 

The talks are a follow up to a draft plan about implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol that was submitted by the UK to Brussels at the end of last month — a step the EU said was essential to rebuilding trust after Britain unilaterally extended waivers for traders from some aspects of the rules in March. This move prompted EU legal action.

The discussions between British and EU officials in recent days have taken place against the backdrop of violence in Northern Ireland, stoked in part by resentment within the unionist community at how the protocol treats their region differently to the rest of the UK.

From April 2 there were eight consecutive nights of unrest in Northern Ireland, involving both unionist and nationalist areas. The police responded by deploying water cannons for the first time in six years.

The Brexit deal placed a trade border down the Irish Sea in order to keep commerce seamless on the island of Ireland. The Northern Ireland protocol requires customs and food safety checks for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

Officials said the EU-UK talks now under way about implementation of the protocol cover a wide array of practical issues ranging from trade in steel and medicines to the policing of food safety standards, how to deal with residual soil on plant bulbs, and the construction of border inspection posts. 

“Technical talks are ongoing”, said an EU official. “Depending on the progress made at technical level, a political-level meeting may be held soon.”

But EU diplomats and officials also cautioned that more work remains to be done, especially on the thorny issue of applying food safety checks. Difficult talks also lie ahead on the timetable for putting particular measures in place.

Meanwhile Downing Street played down a report in The Observer that it was resisting proposals by Dublin for a special crisis summit to address the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland.

“We have not refused anything,” said a Number 10 official. “It’s something we will consider.”

However there are concerns on the British side about the wisdom of holding a summit in Northern Ireland with Irish government ministers at a time when pro-UK loyalist groups have been engaged in street violence.

Irish officials said taoiseach Micheál Martin and British prime minister Boris Johnson have spoken and would “maintain close contact over coming days”.



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