A SENIOR British minister has warned of security tensions in Northern Ireland and the risk that it could leave the United Kingdom in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Cabinet Office minister David Lidington, who is effectively prime minister Theresa May’s deputy made the warning as the House of Commons debates the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU.
He said “moderate” Nationalists are becoming more “hard-line” and questioning Northern Ireland’s constitutional status in the UK.
He said maintaining their consent to the Union is “hugely important” to preserving it.
Mrs May’s government is facing an uphill battle to get the deal through Westminster amid opposition to the so-called backstop to avoid a hard border in Ireland.
Many Brexit supporting MPs fear that if it was triggered in the absence of an overall trade deal it would trap the UK into EU rules indefinitely.
As the debate continued today Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn suggested that the UK’s exit date of March 29 could be delayed if his party forces a general election.
The House of Commons vote on Mrs May’s deal is set to take place next Tuesday and Labour will call a vote of no confidence in the government if she loses.
Mr Corbyn said that if an election occurs it would campaign on a platform of opening new negotiations with Brussels on a deal that would involve a customs union and single market relationship. He said time would be required for these negotiations and an extension to Article 50 – the mechanism for leaving the EU – would be a “possibility”.
Mr Lidington’s comments on the risk of Northern Ireland leaving the UK came late last night.
He insisted that proposals made by the British government – including one that would see the Northern Ireland given an effective ‘veto’ on new EU rules should the backstop come into force – were new commitments.
The DUP, who Mrs May’s government relies on to stay in power have already rejected them.
Mr Lidington said he accepts that the documents published yesterday have not been enough to meet all of the DUP’s concerns.
But he added that they give expression to the British government’s “wish to make it very clear that we see Northern Ireland’s place in not only the political union of the United Kingdom but the single economic internal market of the United Kingdom now and into the future.”
He said the British government is also uncomfortable with the backstop but “do not believe it poses the risks to the Union that are expressed by its critics.”
He later referred to concerns raised by the PSNI chief constable about “security tension that could arise from a no-deal exit” and also said “we should also be aware of the symbolism of any kind of infrastructure on the border.”
Mr Lidington added: “I want us to remain in a situation in which people living in Northern Ireland who identify themselves as Irish but have fairly moderate political views continue to support the Union with the United Kingdom.”
However he said he has seen opinion polls and had conversations with “moderate” nationalists.
“I am hearing from moderate people on the nationalist side who have been content with the Union that they are becoming more anxious, more hard-line and more questioning of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status.”
“Their consent, to use the key term, to the Union seems to me to be hugely important to preserving the Union, which I passionately want to do.”
The Good Friday Agreement gives prominence to the ‘principle of consent‘ which affirms the legitimacy of the aspiration to a United Ireland while recognising the current wish of the majority in Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom.
Mr Lidington also said: “We should not underestimate the importance of the guarantee of no hard border on the island of Ireland and no customs border in the Irish Sea.”
His remarks echo comments made by Mrs May last month where she warned that a United Ireland would move closer if the backstop was removed from the Brexit deal.
She said: “They (in Northern Ireland) do not want a return to a hard Border. And if this House cares about preserving our union, it must listen to those people because our union will only endure with their consent.”