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Your EU referendum vote could change things forever in Northern Ireland

Brexit would have an impact across these isles – and could cause particular problems when it comes to the border between the Republic of Ireland and the North.

With all the tussles about immigration from mainland Europe, British commenters all too readily forget that there is another border, closer to home. And voters across the UK need to consider it as we head to the polls.

Belfast is a city which wears its past close to the surface, and the EU referendum has become part of a fraught landscape. 

Walking through West Belfast last week, I was struck by the roads hung with Union Jacks and 1916 flags (no, not that 1916 - these flags mark the sacrifice of soldiers from the 36th Ulster Division in the Somme), and how many also featured Leave posters in residents' windows. A few streets away, on the Falls Road, the Irish tricolour and Irish-language murals were joined by signs urging voters to back Remain.

Polling in Northern Ireland over the last few days has shown support for Remain (although the gap is closing), particularly among Catholic voters. But what could the vote mean for the province?

The border between the North and the Republic

I've heard people joke, when talking about border controls, that the UK should have little problem as it's an island. Well, actually, it's not. One of the biggest concerns for Northern Ireland is what would happen to the border with the Republic if Brexit occurs. Suddenly it will become a land border between a non-EU and an EU country.

Last week the same week I casually took a bus from Donegal Town over the border to Derry  David Cameron warned that border controls would have to be introduced.

"If we were to Leave, and, as the Leave campaigners want, make a big issue about our borders, then you’ve got a land border with Britain outside the European Union and the Republic of Ireland inside the EU.

"Therefore you can only either have new border controls between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, or, which I would regret hugely, you would have to have some sort of checks on people as they left Belfast or other parts of Northern Ireland to come to the rest of UK."

Both options would be controversial. The Taoiseach Enda Kenny has said that a new boundary within the island of Ireland would signify a return to "division, isolation and difference", with the potential to provide "an opportunity for others with malign agendas". 

What would happen to the Good Friday Agreement?

A mural in Belfast

Brendan Donnolly, a former MEP and senior research fellow at the LSE, recently penned a blog post explaining that "it is not by chance that in the Good Friday agreement... so much emphasis is laid on the membership of both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland in the European Union". 

Funnily enough, the same people who don't trust Britain to administer the peace process would also be unhappy with the EU leaving that process. Donnolly writes:

"Nationalist sentiment in Ireland since 1973 has seen the sharing of British and Irish national sovereignty within the Union as an important softening of the bipolar choice between British and Irish dominion in Northern Ireland. A DUP-inspired option for the UK to leave the Union will be seen by many nationalists as a reconstruction of political and even physical barriers between the north and south of Ireland, which the Good Friday agreement was designed to reduce...

"The UK’s continuing membership of the European Convention of Human Rights, which plays such an important part in the Good Friday agreement, is moreover guaranteed and reinforced by its membership of the EU. There are many in today’s Conservative party who would wish to use British exit from the European Union as an opportunity to terminate British membership of the Convention. This would be an existential threat to the Good Friday agreement."


The question of a united Ireland rears its head

Of course, the campaign to remove Northern Ireland from British control has never really ceased. But Brexit would undoubtedly lend a renewed urgency to the question of whether the North should become part of the Republic. 

Before the election, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said that the EU referendum must be met with "a seperate and binding one here in the North". More recently, he has said that Brexit would constitute "a democratic imperative to have a border poll", although he refused to comment on the possibility that border crossing points might become a target for dissidents.

The peace process

Aside from EU funding helping to regenerate Northern Ireland generally they received almost £2.5bn of funding in the last EU funding round the Union has also contributed to specific programs across the island, including specific peace initiatives.

Anyone who has spent much time in Belfast recently can't have missed the general geographical distribution of "Leave" and "Remain" posters. And within Stormont, the DUP have been campaigning for a Leave vote and Sinn Féin for Remain.

More generally, there are fears that any introduction of border checks could reignite an atmosphere of conflict and distrust, as former NI secretary Peter Mandelson recently warned

A situation in which Northern Ireland, and particularly the nationalist communtiy, vote for Remain but Britain (or, more specifically, England) decides to leave could be disastrous for Anglo-Irish relations.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland

A protest in 2016. Getty
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Fewer teachers, more pupils and no more money. Schools are struggling

With grammars and universal school meals, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking.

If you ask people in Britain what the ­biggest political issues are, schools don’t make the top five. Yet last week Labour set its first party political broadcast in a fictional classroom where a teacher described Jeremy Corbyn’s plans for schools’ future. Without a Labour government, the teacher opines, there will be no more libraries, or teachers, or school trips. Though the scenario is a flagrant breach of the law – teachers must remain politically impartial – education isn’t a bad place for Labour to start its campaign. Schools really are quite screwed.

Three things are hitting hard. Schools have less money, fewer people want to be teachers, and an avalanche of under-sevens is hitting the playgrounds and won’t stop for several more years.

How did we get here? In 2015 the Conservatives pledged to keep school funding at the same rate per pupil over the lifetime of the parliament. Yet while the money coming in has remained flat, schools have faced huge hikes in costs, particularly staffing. Big increases in mandatory pension contributions and National Insurance have taken their toll; so has the apprenticeship levy. The
Institute for Fiscal Studies estimates that all told, schools will have lost about 8 per cent of their budget by 2020. That’s £3bn of savings that must be found. Or, more bluntly, the starting salaries of 100,000 teachers.

It is worth remembering at this point how huge the schools sector is and how many people are affected. About half a million teachers work in the 20,000-plus state schools. A further 300,000 people work in allied professions. There are eight million children and an estimated 12 million parents. Lump in their grandparents, and it’s fair to say that about 20 million voters are affected by schools in one way or another.

The budget squeeze is leading many of these schools to drastic measures: firing teachers, increasing class sizes, cutting music from the curriculum, charging parents for their child’s place on a sports team, dropping transport provision, and so on. Begging letters to parents for donations have become commonplace; some have asked for contributions of up to £60 a month.

On top of money worries, teachers are abandoning the profession. In 2015, an additional 18,000 went to work in international schools – more than were trained at universities over the same year. They joined the 80,000 teachers already working in British schools abroad, attracted by higher pay and better working conditions.

Graduates are also snubbing teaching. With starting salaries increasing at less than 1 per cent a year since 2010, new teachers are now paid about 20 per cent less than the average graduate trainee. Changes to higher education are also such that trainees must now pay £9,000 in order to gain their teaching qualification through a university. The government has missed its target for teacher trainees for five years now, and there is no coherent plan for hitting it.

No money and no teachers is less of a problem if you are in a demographic dip. We had a bizarrely low birth rate at the turn of the century, so we currently have a historically small proportion of teens. Unfortunately, the generation just behind them, of seven-year-olds and under, is enormous. Why? Because the “baby echoers”, born in the 1970s to the baby boomers, had children a bit later than their parents. Add to that the children recently born to immigrants who arrived in their twenties when the European Union expanded in the early 2000s, and Britain is facing an El Niño of toddlers. By 2025 a million extra children will be in the school system than in 2010.

To keep on top of the boom the government has been creating schools like a Tasmanian devil playing Minecraft. But 175,000 more places will be needed in the next three years. That’s the equivalent of one new secondary school per week from now until 2020.

In fairness, the government and councils have put aside money for additional buildings, and roughly the same number of parents are getting their first-choice school as before. The free schools policy, which delivers new schools, has not always been well managed, but it is now more efficient and targeted. However, many more children combined with squeezed budgets and fewer teachers typically leads to bigger class sizes. Most classrooms were built to house 30 pupils. Exam results may not get worse, but no parent wants their child working on a makeshift desk improvised out of a windowsill.

Instead of addressing these challenges, both main parties have decided to answer policy questions no one is asking. Theresa May wants more grammar schools, ostensibly because they will give more choice to parents – though these are the only schools that pick pupils, as opposed to the other way around. And she says they will aid social mobility, though all the evidence (and I really do mean all) suggests the opposite.

Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is offering free lunches to all seven-to-11-year-olds, which sounds worthy until you realise that children from low-income families already get free lunch, and that feeding every child a hot sit-down meal is virtually impossible, given the limited space and kitchen facilities in most schools. Plus, the evidence this £1bn policy would make any significant difference
to health or attainment is pretty sketchy. Labour has also sensibly talked about cash and promised to “fully fund” schools, but it isn’t clear what that means.

What’s missing so far from the Conservatives and Labour alike is a set of policies about teacher recruitment or place planning. The sector needs to know how schools will be built, and where the teachers will come from for the extra kids. In other words, the message to both sides is – must try harder.

Laura McInerney is the editor of Schools Week and a former teacher

Laura McInerney taught in East London for six years and is now studying on a Fulbright scholarship at the University of Missouri. She also works as Policy Partner at LKMCo.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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