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Prince William flies to N Ireland amid Brexit tensions


AFP Belfast
Prince William arrived in Northern Ireland on Wednesday as the British government seeks to reassure the once-troubled province at the centre of the Brexit drama that its hard-won stability will endure.
The hastily-arranged two-day visit by the second-in-line to the throne and his wife Kate comes as MPs argue over the terms of Brexit with just over a month to go until the scheduled departure date.
The royals began their trip with a visit to Windsor Park football stadium to find out about outreach programmes and the tour will include a meeting with a youth charity in the border region of Fermanagh.
Even though the royals tend to steer well clear of politics, their visits are often organised in conjunction with the government to assist Britain's wider political and economic agenda at home and abroad.
The shock result of the 2016 EU membership referendum has forced the royals into diplomatic overdrive.
Not long after the referendum, William toured Canada, then Europe, in what was seen as a bridge-building exercise as Britain looks to retain old alliances with European and build new trade ties with the Commonwealth.
Strategic royal visits have multiplied since then.
But the trip to Northern Ireland, where the IRA fought a bloody campaign against British rule for three decades until 1998, is a particularly sensitive mission.
Since the end of the conflict, residents of the province have become accustomed to a free-flowing border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state. Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU by 56 percent to 44 percent but the United Kingdom as a whole voted to leave.
The future of the border -- and in particular how to fulfil British and EU promises to keep it open -- has been a flashpoint for Brexit divisions ever since. There are fears on both sides of the Irish border that any disruption could undermine the peace process.
But many Conservative MPs are refusing to approve the draft Brexit deal on the table because they fear Britain would be trapped in an indefinite "backstop" arrangement with the EU to keep the border open.
After her deal was overwhelmingly rejected by parliament last month, Prime Minister Theresa May has said she will look for changes to the backstop but has sought to reassure Northern Ireland over its future.
Beyond Northern Ireland, Brexit has exposed wider divisions in Britain and the looming departure deadline of March 29 has ramped up tensions in the country. While Prince William's grandmother Queen Elizabeth II has remained neutral in the debate, she has occasionally made allusions to Brexit.
Last month, she emphasised the need for Britons to come together and "seek out the common ground", speaking to members of the Women's Institute (WI) near her Sandringham estate in eastern England.
"As we look for new answers in the modern age, I for one prefer the tried and tested recipes, like speaking well of each other and respecting different points of view; coming together to seek out the common ground; and never losing sight of the bigger picture," she said.
In her traditional Christmas broadcast to the nation in December, the queen had offered a similar message of unity, warning against "tribalism".
"Even with the most deeply held differences, treating the other person with respect and as a fellow human being is always a good first step towards greater understanding," she said.

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First Published: Feb 27 2019 | 7:20 PM IST

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