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The EU debate must not ignore Northern Ireland

Brexit could threaten the fragile Northern Irish peace process.

By Siobhan Fenton

As the farthest flung part of the UK and a region characterised by vastly different political issues, Northern Ireland can often seem too far away geographically and culturally to have much bearing on UK national politics. But as the Brexit debate intensifies, the region’s unique circumstances and relationship with the EU will have more impact on the EU referendum than has so far been acknowledged by British politicians and political commentators.

Northern Ireland is by far the most pro-EU part of the UK, with 75 per cent saying that they will vote to remain, compared to 52 per cent in England, 55 per cent in Wales and 64 per cent in Scotland. Key reasons for this marked spike in support are chiefly: special funding which Northern Ireland receives from the EU as part of the peace process, how the region’s economy relies more heavily on agriculture than elsewhere in the UK and – most crucially – how Northern Ireland shares a deeply contentious land border with the Republic of Ireland.

A Brexit could have unintended consequences in reigniting debate around Northern Ireland’s border and shaking the relative stability which has followed the peace process. Currently, it is easy to travel between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK or the Republic of Ireland, and no passport is required to do so. However, were the UK to leave the EU, it is unclear if a border would be erected between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, either in the form of physical fences and barriers, or bureaucratic checks in the form of passports and paperwork.

Speaking last month at a Stronger In event, former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Mandelson warned: “Anything, in my view, that strengthened a sense of separation between Northern and southern Ireland – physically, economically, psychologically – has the potential to upset the progress that has been made and serve as a potential source of renewed sectarianism.” He added that Brexit would bring “almost inevitable change” to the border between the two jurisdictions.

Indeed, both of Northern Ireland’s nationalist parties, the SDLP and Sinn Fein, are supporting the Remain campaign largely to protect links to the Republic of Ireland. However, the unionist parties, which identify as solidly British and reject any unification with the rest of Ireland, are split on whether a Brexit would weaken or strengthen their ties to the ‘mainland’ UK. The Democratic Unionists (DUP) are backing Brexit, the only main Northern Irish party to do so. They argue that a border could be easily erected between Northern Ireland and the Republic and would welcome such a move. However, the Ulster Unionists (UUP), who are more moderate, have cautioned that it might be more likely that Britain would find a border stretching miles along Irish countryside and farmland, that would be impractical and essentially leave Northern Ireland sealed off from the rest of the UK.

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Writing in the Belfast Telegraph in March, UUP leader Mike Nesbitt warned: “Our land border is too long and complicated to seal. We know that from of bitter experience. If we Brexit, there is no prospect of a Trump-like wall, but every reason to believe a return to a hard border will be required. If it isn’t along the geographical line that separates us from the Republic of Ireland, where will it be? It is likely to be at Stranraer and Liverpool and Heathrow and Gatwick and the ports and airports.”

Furthermore, in similar circumstances to Scotland, a Brexit would result in renewed calls for a referendum on whether Northern Ireland should leave the UK. Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness has said that the British government would have a “democratic imperative” in the event of a Brexit to allow a poll on re-unifying Ireland. It is unlikely that Northern Ireland would vote to leave, but a mere referendum would be deeply divisive and risk violent fall out.

A further complication is that Northern Ireland receives considerable funds from the EU for post-peace process related projects. Since 1989, the EU has pumped £1.3 billion in ‘peace money’ into Northern Ireland to increase stability in the region by funding everything from art projects to bridges and bus stops. The flood of funds has slowed in recent years as the country has largely returned to normality, however funds are due to be allocated until 2020 and in the event of a Brexit they would almost certainly stop. Would the rest of the United Kingdom be happy to foot the bill amounting to possibly hundreds of pounds worth of peace money for Northern Ireland? At a time of austerity it could be a hard sell to English, Welsh and Scottish residents yet so far it does not appear to have been factored into any calculations on how much a Brexit would cost the UK.

A number of other factors influence how positively Northern Ireland views the EU. The region’s economy relies more heavily on agriculture and fishing than the rest of the UK, thus benefitting considerably more from EU farming and fishing subsidiaries. In addition, the area has been largely unaffected by the same immigration fears gripping the rest of the UK. Perhaps due to international perceptions of Northern Ireland as a conflict zone, immigration figures are low and so far it has taken just 51 Syrian refugees, a scarcely perceptible number among Northern Ireland’s population of 1.8 million. There is little local concern about immigrants changing areas culturally or ‘taking’ the homes or jobs of local people, as some fear in Great Britain.

Of course, with such a small population, Northern Ireland’s voting power in the referendum is small. However, in the event of a Brexit, the region would shoulder many of the repercussions incurred by a UK-EU split. Thus far, the Leave campaign has done very little to provide answers as to what they would be shouldering and how; as ever, it may be hubristic to assume that Northern Ireland’s peace process will be strong enough to withstand the weight. 

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