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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

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.