As the news of IRA leader turned peacemaker Martin McGuinness’ death emerged on Tuesday, Jonathan Tonge told BBC Newsnight the exit from the European Union could see the United Kingdom disintegrate.
Suggesting Sinn Fein could seize upon the same arguments as Nicola Sturgeon, as the First Minister is battling for a second independence referendum before Brexit, the professor said the change in circumstances could see the island of Ireland united.
Prof Tonge said: “I think that is certainly the reason Martin McGuiness moved towards peace. It was quite clear even with the huge bombs you saw from the IRA in the 1990s which flattened London… even then the IRA could not force the United Ireland.
“What you’ve seen is Sinn Fein making huge political progress since the IRA’s ceasefires of the 1990s, there’s been growth in almost every election consecutively for Sinn Fein since that period.
BBC • GETTY
Ireland could be united under one banner after Brexit, Jonathan Tonge suggested
“And Sinn Fein is very much on the march… [with] a successful election only earlier this month in the north. It’s more likely than not that they’ll at some point sit in government in the south in the Irish Republic over the next couple of years.”
Prof Tonge added the UK’s decision to abandon Brussels had put the idea of a United Ireland back on the agenda, as “soft nationalists” had left the door open.
He told the BBC programme: “And yes, I do think a United Ireland is back on the agenda. It’s certainly being talked about seriously. Brexit provides the material change in circumstances to quote Nicola Sturgeon in the Scottish case, that could lead to a United Ireland.
“Soft nationalists have basically accepted devolved power sharing within the United Kingdom over the last few years, but firstly you’ve not got that with the collapse of the institutions in the north.
Sinn Fein is very much on the march
“Secondly, soft nationalists have accepted the border as a fact but they won’t accept a border as a fence again if there is a reinvigorated border as a consequence of Brexit.
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“That brings the United Ireland idea back on the agenda in a way that you haven’t seen really in recent times.”
Prof Tonge’s suggestion Brexit could result in the disintegration of the UK came after co-guest Ruth Dudley Edwards argued the IRA had “wrecked” the chance of a United Ireland for generations.
The historian said: “I think we should remember that if there was any chance of a United Ireland the IRA set it back by generations.
“There was always a possibility given the right kind of approach that the two sides of the border might get to know each other, that organically trade might occur, that friendships might develop and that in due course people might see the possibility of a United Ireland.
Martin McGuinness' life in pictures Tue, March 21, 2017
The former deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, has passed away aged 66
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Martin McGuinness and Tony Blair look on at Stormont Parliament Buildings in Belfast in 2007
“But once the IRA decided to try to bomb and kill… they wrecked it.”
Mr McGuinness, who passed away aged 66, previously slammed Brexit as he argued Ireland would suffer by leaving the bloc.
The former Deputy First Minister and Sinn Fein leader said: "The fatal decision to hold the referendum was made without any consideration whatsoever on its impact in the island of Ireland.
Mr McGuinness added: "As things sit at the moment we are going to suffer big time.
"Theresa May says 'Brexit means Brexit', but so far as we are concerned Brexit means disaster for the people of Ireland."