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Pat MurphyThe Chinese curse “May you live in interesting times” may be apocryphal but it fits the circumstances facing Ireland. In a way few would have imagined 12 months ago, forces are loose that could dramatically upend the status quo.

One of these is the result of the election for the Northern Ireland Assembly held earlier this month. For the first time, the unionist parties didn’t win a majority of seats.

Since its 1921 creation as a separate legal entity, the predominant cleavage in Northern Ireland’s politics has been over the island’s partition into two units, one a part of the United Kingdom and the other an independent state. The (mostly Protestant) unionists supported the U.K. connection and thus partition. The (generally Catholic) nationalists wanted partition abolished and Northern Ireland integrated with what is now the Republic of Ireland.

Although demographics seemed to be slowly moving against them, the unionists have always retained the edge. But suddenly, that situation looks more tenuous.

Counting the main parties and explicitly affiliated splinter groups or independents, the unionists won just 40 of the 90 assembly seats. And their share of the first-preference poll – Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote – totalled just over 45 percent.

To get a sense of the historical erosion, consider that the comparable unionist totals in 1998 were 58 (of 108) seats and 51 percent of the first-preference vote.

Does this mean that Northern Ireland is hovering on the brink of rejecting partition? The answer is probably no.

For one thing, a substantial chunk of votes – more than 10 percent – went to parties not explicitly affiliated with the unionist or nationalist position. If push came to shove, many of those would vote to remain in the U.K.

And then there’s the issue of what the nationalist vote really means. To what extent is it about historic community solidarity and interest rather than a concrete desire for Irish unification?

Put another way, in a straight yes/no referendum on leaving the U.K. and joining the Republic of Ireland, would all nationalist voters choose departure?

It’s a tough question, only susceptible to a definitive answer if posed in real life. However, and for what it’s worth, polling over the last several years suggests at least a genuine ambivalence. Aspiring is one thing; actually taking the plunge is quite another.

But if the tectonic plates are merely making noise about Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, they may be imminently shifting on a more immediate matter. With the last legal hurdles having just been cleared, the U.K. government is now in a position to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and formally begin the process of withdrawing from the European Union (EU).

And Brexit, as it’s popularly known, has the potential to inflict serious damage on Ireland, particularly the Republic of Ireland. No other EU country is remotely as vulnerable.

The U.K. is the Republic’s single biggest trading partner and Irish agriculture is especially dependent on it. In economist David McWilliams’ telling, a full 45 percent of agricultural output goes to the U.K. market and large chunks of those exports have no other practical outlet. So if Brexit results in significant tariff barriers between the U.K. and the EU, the Republic of Ireland will be in serious economic trouble.

Reflecting on the upcoming wheeling and dealing, McWilliams astutely notes that “our interests in the negotiations are actually closer to London than Brussels.” He even goes further: if the Republic sides with the EU, “we are negotiating against ourselves.”

While an amicable Brexit divorce is very much in the interests of both the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland, the motivation of the EU’s political class is more mixed. Yes, sectors like the German automotive industry would be hit by an acrimonious divorce, but there’s another agenda to consider. If the U.K. suffers little or no pain from its departure, others may be tempted to follow suit. And then the ideological dream of a federal Europe evaporates.

For those of us safely removed from the firing line, it’s going to be a fascinating process.

Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well perhaps a little bit.

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