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17 October 2016

Northern Ireland: the land that Brexit broke

Scotland and Northern Ireland, both taken out of the European Union despite voting to stay in, face uncertain futures. 

By Stephen Bush

What does Brexit mean for the constituent kingdoms of the UK? For all the winds that may buffet England and Wales in the coming years, and Wales in particular has a lot of to lose from what one minister in the Senedd described to me as the “meteor” of the disappearance of the EU social fund, an uncertain future for farming subsidies and the loss of single market membership, it was at least the choice of England and Wales to leave, albeit by narrow margins.

But both Northern Ireland and Scotland voted to stay in the European Union, and now both countries face a future not of their choosing.

As far as the coverage is concerned, it’s Scotland that dominates, as it has most of the constitutional discussion over what Britain’s EU exit means for the future of the UK as a whole, with Nicola Sturgeon’s pledge that a hard Brexit will trigger a referendum re-run still reverberating.

But the First Minister’s hand is not as strong as it looks – at the moment, all the indications are is that a second referendum would get the same answer as the first, possibly by a more emphatic margin. The SNP leadership have studied the rise and fall of the Bloc Quebecois in Canada very closely, and fear that losing a second referendum would kill them off for good. 

As a result, Sturgeon is having to play a very canny game indeed, keeping her ultras on side without triggering a second independence bout until she is certain of winning it. (Two must-reads on that topic today: Mure Dickie in the FT and our own Julia Rampen in the NS.)

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Leave aside Scotland for a moment. Without wishing to refight the independence debate on a Monday morning, it feels unlikely that Scotland’s immediate future could contain the breakdown of a hard-won peace, whether it remains in the UK or goes it alone. The worst-case scenario for an independent Scotland is that it might be poorer and more right-wing than it is now, which feels not dissimilar to the likely destination of Britain after Brexit in any case.

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But the repercussions of Brexit on Northern Ireland could have far more damaging consequences.

Even parking the worst-case scenario for a moment, the economic shock both for Northern Ireland and its neighbour, the Republic, is going to be large. Britain is Ireland’s largest export market, so any exit deal which results in tariff barriers will hit that country hard, which is why Irish PM Enda Kenny is convening crisis talks with Ireland’s political parties and the business community. It’s not just possible, but likely, that the short-term consequence of a hard Brexit would be a two-for-one recession in both the United Kingdom and the Republic.

It also has far-reaching consequences for peace in the region. Martin McGuiness, the deputy first minster of Northern Ireland, sits down with Patrick Wintour to talk Brexit and its consequences this morning.

He dubs Brexit “a disaster” for Northern Ireland, and more troublingly still, says that the out vote rode roughshod over the principle of “consent” (no change to the constitutional status of the people of Northern Ireland without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland) integral to the Good Friday Agreement, a principle that was a significant concession by his party Sinn Fein.

It has to be said that while Northern Ireland barely featured in the referendum debate on the mainland, it has never been far from the mind of Theresa May.

One sign of what areas are uppermost in the PM’s mind are where she places her trusted lieutenants from her time at the Home Office: to the troubled welfare brief, Damian Green. To the culture department, where there is a looming battle over the renewal over the BBC charter, Karen Bradley.

And to Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, in many ways May’s protégé. It’s a far cry from the years of David Cameron, when Theresa Villiers was shoved there partly to stop the Cabinet looking too male. She pulled little water in the Cabinet and made a neglible impression on Northern Irish politicians.

Brokenshire has already made a good start, impressing Stormont’s politicians and helping with the wooing of the DUP at Westminster. That task has gone so well that, on most issues, the government starts with a working majority of 32 rather than its Conservative-only one of 16.

But Brokenshire’s work only goes so far, and, having ignored the consequences of Brexit on Northern Ireland during the contest, voters and the political class on the mainland may find that it takes up an increasing amount of their time and energy.

A shorter version of this appeared in today’s Morning Call, my daily email, featuring the best of the day’s papers and everything you need to know about politics in Westminster and beyond. It’s free and you can subscribe here.