British PM Theresa May visits Belfast to ease Brexit worries

British Prime Minister Theresa May visited Belfast on Monday to address concerns about Britain's vote to exit the European Union, a decision that the majority of those in Northern Ireland opposed.

Liam McBurney/PA/AP
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (c.) is greeted by Northern Ireland's First Minister Arlene Foster (l.) and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness upon arrival at Stormont Castle in Belfast, Northern Ireland, Monday. May met Northern Ireland’s leaders in Belfast Monday in a bid to allay Northern Irish concerns about Britain's vote to leave the European Union.

Ever since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, many in Northern Ireland have worried about its peace with the Republic of Ireland, its southern neighbor, open borders between them, and a loss of agricultural subsidies and billions more in EU funding.

In her first visit to Northern Ireland since she was named prime minister of Britain, Theresa May traveled to Belfast Monday to assuage these fears.

"I have been clear that we will make a success of the UK's departure from the European Union," Ms. May said in a statement. "That means it must work for Northern Ireland too, including in relation to the border with the Republic."

May plans to meet with Arlene Foster, the first minister of Northern Ireland, who campaigned for Brexit, and her deputy, Martin McGuinness, a former Irish Republican Army commander who campaigned to remain.

May’s visit to Northern Ireland shows the fragile conditions she and Britain must navigate there and in Scotland to keep Britain together as it Brexits. The referendum has strengthened nationalist demands for independence in Scotland and for Irish unification in Northern Ireland.

Their votes, in opposition to how England and Wales voted, are driving these sentiments. In Northern Ireland, 56 percent wished to remain in the EU. In Scotland, 63 percent wished to remain. In all of Britain, 52 percent voted to leave.

Irish north and south of the border have justifications to be concerned about how Brexit could affect them. One lingering question is how it would impact the 1998 Good Friday Agreement between the mostly Catholic nationalists who sought a united Ireland and the mostly Protestant unionists who wanted to keep Northern Ireland British. The accord contains several references to the EU.

On Monday, a coalition of Northern Ireland politicians and human rights activists threatened to mount a legal challenge against Brexit unless the accord is protected. The coalition, which includes members of the province’s two largest Irish national parties, said it would apply for a judicial review if the conditions of Brexit fail to safeguard the accord.

Another concern is how the border that Northern Ireland shares with the independent Republic of Ireland would be affected. If Britain were to leave the EU, the border would be the only one on land an independent Britain shares with the EU. Leaders on both sides want to ensure people and goods can continue to cross the land border, as well as the Irish Sea, freely. Trade across the Irish Sea predates the countries’ simultaneous appointment to the EU in 1973. But concern about the state of the borders was stoked by a Brexit argument about the country being able to control its borders more closely.

Bruce Newsome, an international relations lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, is skeptical that Brexit would significantly affect the United Kingdom's arrangement with the Republic of Ireland.

“The Brexit vote changes nothing materially,” said Dr. Newsome, in an email to The Christian Science Monitor’s Christina Beck last week. “Britain and Eire already had agreements for a customs-free border, irrespective of their obligations to the EU; their security arrangements are also unaffected, are perhaps the closest amongst any two neighbors in Europe.”

That hasn’t stopped calls for a unified, independent Ireland.

"The British government now has no democratic mandate to represent the views of the North in any future negotiations with the European Union and I do believe that there is a democratic imperative for a 'border poll' to be held," said Mr. McGuinness, the province’s deputy first minister and leader of the pro-unification Sinn Féin party, told national Irish broadcaster RTÉ immediately following Brexit.

A border poll would be a vote to decide whether to reunify Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. According to the 1998 peace agreement between Northern Ireland and Ireland, the British secretary of state for Northern Ireland must order a referendum vote if popular opinion seems to call for reunification.

Theresa Villiers, who holds that post, responded to McGuiness, saying there will not be a vote on the reunification of Ireland. She added that the EU decision does not call for border changes.

"With common sense between us, the UK and Ireland can maintain a border which is just as open after a Brexit vote as it has been for many years," said Ms. Villiers.

 This report contains material from Reuters.

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