Brexit to invoke new Irish border conflict?

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Britain’s plans for a “hard Brexit” could lead to customs controls along the Irish border, Sinn Fein’s new leader in Northern Ireland said on Wednesday, putting the onus on the government in Dublin to limit the damage.

Prime Minister Theresa May has said Britain will not remain a full member of the European Union’s customs union, potentially meaning a tighter border between the British province of Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. It will be Britain’s only land frontier with the EU once it leaves the bloc.

Asked if this would make customs controls likely along the border, Michelle O’Neill told Reuters: “Yes… That is going to be the implication if we don’t have our interests looked after and the Irish government don’t step up to the plate.”

Sinn Fein wants Northern Ireland to be given a special status within the EU and more than half of the region’s voters backed staying in the bloc last year. Its partner in the devolved government before its recent collapse, the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), favours a clean EU break.

Responding to May’s pledge to find a way to preserve a common travel area between Britain and Ireland that predates their EU membership, while limiting immigration, O’Neill said: “Sometimes the British government are making this up on the hoof”.

O’Neill, 40, succeeded Martin McGuinness, the former Irish Republican Army (IRA) commander turned peacemaker, earlier this week, marking a shift in party leadership towards a generation not directly involved in decades of conflict.

The outgoing health minister said she stood for the same “republican core values” as McGuinness and party president Gerry Adams and renewed the party’s call for a referendum to unite the two sides of the border as soon as possible.

“I think it’s important the people have their say particularly in light of Brexit and the implications there are going to be,” O’Neill said in an interview at Stormont, the seat of the Northern Ireland Assembly.

“I think that a lot more people are thinking about their future so I think now is the time to have a border poll.”

It is up to Britain’s Secretary of State to Northern Ireland to call a border poll according to the 1998 agreement that brought peace. It also specifies that the Secretary “shall” order a referendum if it appears likely that a majority of those voting would seek to form part of a united Ireland.

Northern Ireland’s Assembly was dissolved on Wednesday after an election was triggered by a breakdown in relations between the power-sharing government of Sinn Fein and the DUP.

The March 2 election will be followed by a renegotiation of power-sharing terms to avoid a return to direct rule from London, a prospect O’Neill said Sinn Fein was totally opposed to as it “failed in the past and will fail again.”

Sinn Fein and the DUP are expected to remain the largest parties after the election. They will have three weeks to form a government before direct rule is considered, a timeframe O’Neill says could be met but only if the DUP agree to Sinn Fein demands including on the Irish language and legacy of the “Troubles”.

It would also require repairing the strained relationship with the DUP, which responded to Monday’s appointment by tweeting an altered image of Adams with O’Neill in his top pocket.

“I think it is very petty and a bit misogynistic actually but I am not going to be distracted by DUP stunts and antics,” O’Neill said.

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