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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 head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.

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How conspiracy theories about the Salisbury attack tap into antisemitic tropes

Rather than blame Russia for the poisoning of Sergei Skripal, some are questioning the intentions of Labour MPs. 

Shortly after the poisoning of former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter, guests on the BBC’s Newsnight programme discussed the reaction of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. The Twitterati went into meltdown. Was the image of the Labour leader amid a Kremlin skyline part of a mainstream media plot to depict Jeremy as a “Soviet stooge”? Was the hat he was wearing “doctored” to look more Russian?

Much of the conspiracy material circulating online recently – and indeed the story on Newsnight about Corbyn – flowed from the shocking attack that has left Skripal and his daughter in hospital and affected many others. The government, and now EU leaders, have blamed Russia for the attack. Yet among some sections of the online left, there seemed a reluctance to point fingers. But if Russia didn’t do it, how could the matter be explained to fit a pre-existing worldview? Jews such as myself wondered how long it would be before the finger pointed at us. It wasn’t even a week before political space had been created which emboldened some to pursue the notion that not Russia but gangsters, Britain’s own research lab or yes, Israel were more reasonably the brains behind the poisoning.

One of the voices that gained traction in relation to the spy attack story belongs to former British diplomat Craig Murray, who took exception to the speed with which Russia was declared responsible. Picking up on the government line that the toxin was “of a type developed by Russia” he penned a blog entitled: “Of a type developed by liars” building on his previous piece “Russian to judgement” which contained numerous allegations, including that “Israel has a clear motivation for damaging the Russian reputation so grievously”. Murray’s work was picked up by left-wing news outlet The Canary and Evolve Politics, among others. The latter also quoted Annie Machon, a former MI5 agent who has previously supported 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Murray’s view soon entered the mainstream, with the Guardian referencing it and one Labour MP sharing a Murray tweet declaring: “Wow, if this is true Theresa May has some very serious questions to answer”. The spotlight on Murray’s theories was a worrying development given that not long before, Murray, had been speculating about another matter.

After the Labour MP John Woodcock introduced to Parliament an Early Day Motion that unequivocally accepts the Russian state’s culpability for the poisoning, Murray tweeted: “Remarkable correlation between Labour MPs who attacked Corbyn in EDM wanting no investigation into Salisbury before firmly attributing blame, and parliamentary Labour friends of Israel, I wonder why?” One can read into this statement what one wants, but to me it seemed to imply that rushing to judgement on Moscow might benefit MPs supportive of Israel, which in conspiracy world are in its pay. Certainly that’s what a number of online hounds sniffed. But rather than one type of conspiracy, Murray was apparently pointing to another. “A conspiracy to attack the leadership of Jeremy Cobyn, perhaps. If you think I was accusing them of being part of a conspiracy to kill Skripal, you are daft,” he tweeted. In short, he seems to be saying, whilst there was not a conspiracy of MPs to be a part of any plot to kill the double agent, the EDM “perhaps” represented a conspiracy to attack the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. 

Others were bolder. One Labour activist, writing about the aforementioned EDM, declared it was “worth noting one of the people sponsoring this motion is a named CIA asset”. Though unspecified, the asset referred to was believed by some to be Ruth Smeeth MP. This seemingly centres on Smeeth being named in a single diplomatic cable from 2009, released by Wikileaks, in reference to her views, when a parliamentary candidate, about an early election being called by Gordon Brown. 

Entirely unrelated to these particular tweets or Murray’s writing, Smeeth also happens to be an MP who has spoken out about antisemitism, and was forced to accept police protection following antisemitic abuse she has received online. She and another MP, John Mann, have both received antisemitic death threats. I stood next to Mann at Labour party conference as a delegate berated him, calling him a CIA agent for taking on this “antisemitism nonsense”. For me, this interaction underlined the causality between some conspiracy theories and antisemitic activity (Mann is not Jewish, but has been a prominent opponent of antisemitism in the party). 

Though it is difficult to reduce to a simple guide, allegations of Israeli conduct that draw on classic antisemitic tropes should be avoided. In recent years this has included suggestions of “organ harvesting” which draw on the antisemitic blood libel, or those that speculate about political control, such as suggestions that “the Israeli tail wags the US dog.”

Certainly, the centrality of Israel to conspiracy theory has a long history. In Mein Kampf, Hitler alleged: “All they want is a central organisation for their international world swindler, endowed with its own sovereign rights and removed from the intervention of other states.” Of course, this type of global antisemitic conspiracy theory predates Hitler. The antisemitic hoax, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, is decades older. Russian in origin, it purported to reveal a meeting of Jews seeking to manipulate governments, foment war and subvert the morals of society. Today, we see a similar sentiment. Indeed, Russian president Vladimir Putin suggested that Jews, or other ethnic minorities, might be behind electoral interference in America. A US lawmaker recently blamed a Jewish elite for controlling the weather and closer to home, one of the Twitter accounts that popularised the Corbyn hat conspiracy, has also shared antisemitic conspiracy theories.

With conspiracy theories transposing from the far right to the extreme left online, it is unsurprising that before long Rothschild conspiracy (secret Jewish plot) memes were posted on Labour party supporter and other forums in relation to the Salisbury poisoning. Indeed, antisemitism itself tends to attract the acrid smell of conspiracy theory. When such an act is alleged, cries of “smears” and “witch hunt” follow. Only recently, The Times reported on an MIT study which revealed that a false-news tweet is 70 per cent more likely to be retweeted than a true story. Maybe this is why allegations of Mossad collaboration with Nazis or Hitler’s support for Zionism have been so widespread.

People cannot necessarily be held responsible for falling for conspiracy theories. Trust in government is at an all-time low. Spin, scandal and economic sorrow have left people looking for alternative heroes and whomever is deemed most reliable on social media timelines will do. Conspiracy theories play into prejudices. They empower and embolden people to feel a step ahead, they provide a scapegoat and a self-satisfying rebuttal loop. Those that do know better meanwhile are perhaps worried to tackle others for fear of attack, hope for better times ahead or most worryingly, see populist conspiracy as a Trumpian route to power.

Last week, we helped organise the first ever one man show in parliament: Marlon Solomon, who will return to Edinburgh with his show “Conspiracy Theory: A Lizard’s Tale” this year. As he reminded us this week, it wasn’t so long ago that a Labour MP was stabbed to death by someone with a warped view of reality. Obsessive and distorted hatred of Israel and Jews has an effect. Conspiracy theories matter. They have real-life consequences for people. It is incumbent upon leaders across the political spectrum not to normalise or sanitise conspiracy theories, or conspiratorial antisemitism, nor to allow us to think we can “trust no one”. But then, as the conspiracists will tell you, I would say that, wouldn’t I?

Danny Stone MBE is the director of the Antisemitism Policy Trust.