Lesley Riddoch: Will Brexit lead to a united Ireland?

Martin McGuinness (centre) and Gerry Adams (left) respond outside Stormont to news of the Brexit vote. Picture: Getty
Martin McGuinness (centre) and Gerry Adams (left) respond outside Stormont to news of the Brexit vote. Picture: Getty
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Ulster’s old certainties are taking a battering as both sides realise they do not want a ‘hard’ border, writes Lesley Riddoch

Scotland is not the only part of the UK contemplating a new constitutional future after last month’s Brexit vote. Mutinous talk is spreading in Northern Ireland – the only other nation to register a Remain vote.

Protestant unionists are queuing for Irish passports and nationalists are openly campaigning for a united Ireland – spurred on by Sinn Fein’s proposal for a referendum.

That option has been ruled out by the Leave-supporting First Minister Arlene Foster, David Cameron and the Irish government. But it could be a slow burner – an idea that roars into life if the predicted cross-border chaos of Brexit becomes a reality. Already personalities like golfer Rory McElroy have backed open discussion, saying last week; “If I’m Northern Irish, what’s better? To be part of the UK and not be in the EU? Or to be in a united Ireland and still belong to the EU? People are going to have to weigh that up.”

Politicians will also have to weigh up changing demographics. While higher birth rates among Catholics suggest they will become the majority in Northern Ireland within a generation, opinion polls consistently show most Catholics still favour membership of the UK. According to Peter Shirlow, of the Institute of Irish Studies at Liverpool University though, a future referendum on Irish unification could be “very, very tight” if Brexit erodes Catholic support for the Union. Steven Agnew, the leader of the Northern Irish Greens agrees; “People are saying for the first time in their life they would vote for a united Ireland, having never contemplated it before.”

There’s wild talk of even more radical solutions. Since the heavily indebted province is too small to go it alone, a Celtic Union between Scotland, Ireland and Northern Ireland would be a more attractive prospect for Northern Ireland’s Unionists than reunification with the Republic alone. Such an “Arc of Craic” stands absolutely no chance of happening, but shows how much the Brexit vote has prompted voters from both traditions to think the unthinkable and imagine the impossible.

The 145 inhabitants of Rathlin island have even launched a campaign to re-establish links with Scotland so they can remain inside the EU if a second Scottish indyref is successful. Rathlin – six miles off the Antrim coast and 12 miles west of Kintyre – was isolated and struggling to survive economically until European funding helped build a new harbour and a National Grid connection. Rathlin also has historic (if mostly mythic) links with Scotland. Robert the Bruce reputedly encountered his famous spider there and the island only entered Irish jurisdiction in 1617, when the death of a snake “proved” the island was subject to St Patrick’s serpent-expelling control.

Of course, all of this has more than a touch of the Blarney about it. But the prospect of a post-Brexit meltdown in Northern Ireland is deadly serious. Just as EU law underpins the foundation of the Scottish Parliament, membership of the European Union was a cornerstone of the 1998 Good Friday agreement which ended decades of fighting over Northern Ireland’s constitutional position. The Common Travel Area which allows virtually free passage between Ireland and Northern Ireland only works because both states are EU members. EU rules allowing British and Irish citizens to work, claim benefits and get hospital treatment in either country are used on a daily basis by tens of thousands of people in Ireland. And all these arrangements are now at risk.

The Ulster Bank has warned that uncertainty around Brexit could make Northern Ireland a “no-go zone” for foreign investment and the head of the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce says those who think saved Euro cash will be spent on Northern Ireland should realise “that isn’t going to happen”.

Veteran diplomat Richard Haass – a former US special envoy for Northern Ireland – has predicted that; “In five years there will no longer be a UK, Scotland will be independent and part of Europe. Less certain but quite possibly all or part of Northern Ireland will join Ireland.”

That may sound unlikely but during a trip to Belfast last week, two of the film crew I worked with believe they will soon become illegal immigrants. A trainee camera operator from Cavan and a producer with an American passport are both deciding where their future lies – beyond the UK. That’s the harbinger of a skills gap Northern Ireland simply cannot afford.

“Illegals” are also thinking further ahead than UK politicians. They predict that Brexit will prompt the creation of Fortress England since neither part of Ireland wants a hard border – partly because of cost but mostly because of the danger of re-igniting the Troubles. One man put it bluntly; “If they build a hard border, dissident Republicans will blow it up. Then the police will call in the army and you’re right back to 1968 [when the Troubles began].”

So if neither part of Ireland wants an internal border, where will it be? The French have said their controversial camp at Calais will be dismantled once the UK leaves Europe and the British will have to deal with immigration themselves at Dover. Ireland may follow suit, leaving the UK government to set up border controls at ports like Fishguard, Holyhead, Stranraer and at UK airports. If that happens, British citizens travelling from Northern Ireland will face the same customs and border controls entering mainland Britain as citizens of the Irish Republic. The potential for delay, anger and political friction is obvious.

“Irexit” campaigners argue an In-Out referendum on continuing EU membership is the only answer. They point out Ireland became a net EU contributor last year for the first time since 1973, Ireland’s low corporation tax may be under threat if EU plans for continent-wide “tax-harmonisation” go ahead, and border patrols could be avoided if the Republic and the UK are both outside the EU. Nonetheless, a recent online poll of 40,000 Irish voters found 69 per cent don’t want such a referendum -- yet.

Amidst all the Brexit-generated uncertainty, two things looks clear. Carefully negotiated border arrangements in Ireland will soon be kicked into touch and London-based politicians don’t seem to care what chaos that will bring.

As events “celebrating” the Twelfth of July take place this week, who knows where such painful realisations will leave the people of Northern Ireland?