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Irish eyes are warily watching Brexit

British Prime Minister Theresa May
Nicolas Kovarik | IP3 | Getty Images

Theresa May, the new U.K. Prime Minister, has tried to calm fears over one of the biggest post-Brexit problems, Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland's border with the Republic of Ireland is one of only two physical borders between the U.K. and another European state (the other is Gibraltar, which has a border with Spain).

Since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement bought peace to the region, border controls were lifted, made possible in part by both states' EU membership. As a result Northern Ireland's relationship with the Republic has strengthened and its economic development has been boosted by EU funding for farming, fishing and infrastructure.

A majority of people in Northern Ireland (56 per cent) voted to remain in the EU in the June 23 referendum, compared to a 52-48 percent split in favor of leaving in the overall U.K. vote. The nationalist community overwhelmingly backed staying in the EU, and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein, the country's largest nationalist party, called for a vote on a united Ireland in the wake of the Brexit vote.

On Monday, several prominent Northern Irish politicians threatened a legal challenge to Brexit, which is unlikely to happen in the next couple of years, because of the complexities involved. They pointed out in a statement "the unique requirements of Northern Ireland constitutional law and statute, in particular the statutory recognition of the Belfast-Good Friday Agreement".

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

She will meet Enda Kenny, Taoiseach of Ireland, in London on Tuesday. Kenny has also expressed his government's commitment to maintaining an open border with the North.

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