Eastwood accused of U-turn on Brexit link to Irish unity

Ian Paisley has asked Colum Eastwood how many more assurances he needs about the nature of border arrangements, post-Brexit
Ian Paisley has asked Colum Eastwood how many more assurances he needs about the nature of border arrangements, post-Brexit

Ian Paisley has accused the leader of the SDLP of performing a dramatic U-turn over his linking of Brexit with the nationalist cause.

The DUP MP was responding to a speech by Colum Eastwood in which the Foyle MLA drew a distinction between discussions about Irish reunification and the issue of the pending EU exit.

Mr Eastwood’s remarks come two-and-a-half months after he himself called for a border poll, saying Brexit makes Irish unity more likely.

Mr Paisley said he was pleased Mr Eastwood was signalling a “change in position”, but criticised his “hyperbole” on the subject up to this point.

In a prepared address Mr Eastwood delivered in Carlingford on Wednesday, he said: “It’s been unhelpful that every time a nationalist speaks about the border in the context of Brexit, unionism has automatically interpreted them as speaking about the constitutional position.

“That simply hasn’t been true. More often than not, what we are actually talking about is the huge psychological and physical shift a new and imposed economic border would bring – something different from future constitutional change.”

In May, at the launch of his party’s Westminster election manifesto, Mr Eastwood had said: “I think there’s now a route for actually winning a border poll.

“I think that we need to have one after Brexit, when the dust settles.

“A border poll is no longer solely the project of Irish nationalism but of pro-European internationalism.

“A unity referendum now has a much broader reach, offering us a return to the EU as a sovereign country.”

Speaking of Wednesday’s speech, North Antrim MP Mr Paisley told the News Letter: “I welcome his clear shift in position. Because this is obviously an absolute U-turn.

“Up until this point he has been setting side-by-side the issue of Brexit and Irish unity.

“And now he’s actually abandoned that foolishness, and he now wants to, if you like, start afresh ... If that is the case I welcome that part of his speech.

“But I’d also say back to him: in future, could you be more clear then about your position?”

He further added that consistent assurances have been given about the “flexible” and “non-friction” nature of a post-Brexit border.

“I don’t know how many more assurances he needs – he’s had more assurances than I’ve had hot dinners,” said Mr Paisley.

Asked to respond to Mr Paisley’s remarks, and whether the SDLP still favours a post-Brexit border poll, the party said: “The SDLP continues to believe that Irish unity is the biggest and the best idea around.

“A unity referendum is provided for in the Good Friday Agreement, endorsed by the people of this island North and South.

“The British government which Ian Paisley props up is totally at sea on Brexit and the borders of the future. On one hand they say they want a ‘frictionless’ border but on the other they refuse to locate it at Britain’s air and sea ports.

“Those two positions are irreconcilable and will lead to economic hardship, particularly in border counties.

“That is made worse by Ian Paisley’s blind insistence that we’re forced to leave the single market and the customs union. He should abandon his aggressive anti-EU position and work to secure the best outcome for people here.”