Analysis. A hard Brexit could trigger the so-called ‘backstop’ clause, which would keep Northern Ireland in the customs and immigration union even if the rest of Great Britain splits. Sinn Féin is trying to take advantage.

Irish reunification sweeps into the frame

The British Parliament’s rejection of the deal negotiated by Prime Minister May and Brussels was again focused mainly on the ambiguous status of the so-called “backstop,” the safeguard clause that would allow Northern Ireland to remain effectively within the rules of the European customs union until a better and more satisfactory solution is found for all parties involved. By now, it has become obvious that the Northern Irish unionists have always interpreted such a backstop as the first step toward the reunification of Ireland.

On the other hand, the Irish republicans of Sinn Féin have been saying for many months that their goal is a referendum on the reunification of Northern Ireland with Ireland. Furthermore, Ireland’s government, while it has been willing to comply with every decision coming from Brussels, which advocated the backstop solution, it has also hinted on several occasions at the advantages of having increasingly close trade relations with the northern part of the island, as required by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

On Monday afternoon, ahead of a meeting with May before the vote, Arlene Foster, the leader of the DUP, spoke of “important decisions” to be taken, which gave hope to some that the Unionists’ opposition to May’s Brexit deal was not set in stone. But later on, the words of the party’s spokesman, Sammy Wilson, poured cold water on all such hopes, saying that May’s revamped agreement represented only minimal, near-insignificant progress. Wilson laid all the blame for this on the intransigence of the European Union in failing to meet the UK’s requirements.

On the other hand, Sinn Féin, through the voice of its Northern Ireland leader, Michelle O’Neill, seized the opportunity to lay all the blame at the feet of the DUP itself, accusing it of disregarding the consequences on the life and work of so many people to pursue the selfish interests of the party. In an interview with CNN, Mary Lou McDonald said that the choice by British MPs not to support a Brexit agreement with the backstop clause makes the possibility of a return to a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland more likely, and suggested that this was probably the true goal of the Unionists from the start.

Recent days have seen heightened activity from the New IRA, which has claimed responsibility for a series of mail bombs, which, according to Dublin authorities, were sent to the UK via post. Four of these have already been intercepted by the police without causing any damage. The mail bombs have already placed the British police on high alert, and the claims of responsibility—which used a specific watchword which allows the positive identification of the group—are yet more proof that major conflict is still brewing in Northern Ireland.

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