Northern Ireland vote jolts already disunited kingdom

BELFAST: A nationalist surge at elections in Northern Ireland and a Scottish demand for a second independence referendum have raised doubts over whether the United Kingdom can hold together after it leaves the European Union.

Last year's referendum on EU membership saw England and Wales vote to leave while Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain, straining the ties that bind the UK together.

Scottish leader Nicola Sturgeon dealt a blow to British Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday by demanding a new vote on independence in late 2018 or early 2019, making her move much sooner than expected. But while the Scottish issue had been well flagged since the Brexit vote, a snap provincial assembly election in Northern Ireland produced a genuine shock: for the first time since the partition of Ireland in 1921, unionists lost their majority.

Nationalist party Sinn Fein, backed by many of Northern Ireland's Catholics, narrowed the gap with the Democratic Unionist Party, whose support base is among pro-British Protestants, to just one seat.

This has revived the slow-burning question of whether Northern Ireland will stay in the United Kingdom over the long term or become part of the Republic of Ireland. This could be achieved by a referendum, often referred to as a border poll.

"A border poll might be 10 years away and it might still be lost, but clearly this election has shown a different dynamic in Northern Ireland politics," said Peter Shirlow, Director of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool. "This opens the door for a different scenario." Nationalist leader Gerry Adams, who is 68 and still hopes to see a united Ireland in his lifetime, told Reuters Sinn Fein had sensed new interest in Irish unity from voters. But May, whose party is officially called Conservative and Unionist, has stated a deep personal commitment to keeping the 300-year-old UK together and is determined not to go down in history as the prime minister who allowed it to fall apart.



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