Northern Ireland is the only area where the Brexit referendum campaign barely figured in the recent devolved elections. The Constitution Unit of UCL where I’m an Hon Fellow hasn’t forgotten us and devolution generally.
The Unit has just published a report based on a seminar that brought academics together from the three devolved areas to discuss how they’d be affected. It’s well worth reading as much for what they have in common as what makes each of them distinctive.
The paper raises but doesn’t develop the theme of how the Northern Ireland Executive would approach negotiations to leave the EU. Speculation about border controls has attracted most of the attention but the impact on trade and north-south relationships generally are at least as important.
Redefining relationships with the Republic would be a paramount concern and could be quite divisive. In the absence of a border poll Sinn Fein and the SDLP would no doubt go for as much harmonisation as possible between North and South. How would the Republic approach a bilateral trade treaty with the UK, with special arrangements for the North? This really is unknown territory all sides prefer not to contemplate.
Here I highlight the NI sections, informed by the presentation of Cathy Gormley Heenan of UU. But I also include references to Scotland, because of our obvious interest if Scotland and England were to record different results.
The evidence suggests that: • Public opinion is much more pro-EU in Scotland and Northern Ireland than in England and Wales, creating the possibility of a divided – and divisive – referendum result. • The process of withdrawal could be complicated by devolution and could have profound constitutional implications for Scotland, Northern Ireland, and the future of the Union. • In the long term after withdrawal, Brexit could somewhat increase scope for policy differentiation between the nations. There are also possibilities for differentiated future relationships with the EU.
The political elite in Northern Ireland is divided. Cathy Gormley-Heenan explained that the DUP and its leader, First Minister Arlene Foster, favour Brexit, while Sinn Féin and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness support staying in the EU. But, as Christine Bell puts it, ‘neither party is unequivocally confident in its position’. The DUP has a core rural constituency of farmers who are attached to EU grants and funding schemes, and its rival the UUP has come out in favour of Remain. So Foster has softened her stance, saying ‘we will on balance recommend a vote to leave the EU’. There is also nuance in the position of Sinn Féin, which historically has opposed the EU as a capitalist club, but has since moved to more critical engagement with the EU
Would a vote for Brexit trigger a second independence referendum in Scotland? It is often suggested that a vote for Brexit against the wishes of Scotland would immediately trigger a second Scottish referendum on independence, and lead to the break-up of the UK. But there are several steps along the way, and Jim Gallagher queried whether this would in fact happen. The SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has said that a vote to leave the EU against Scotland’s wishes would be a material change which could justify a second referendum; but she has also said that she would only hold a second referendum if there is clear and sustained evidence that the majority of people in Scotland want independence. She would also be most unlikely to hold a second referendum unless she was confident that it could be won.
In practice this might require clear opinion polling evidence for at least six months showing that the Scots have changed their minds, and are willing to take the plunge and vote for independence. Until there is such evidence, Nicola Sturgeon will temporise, give a guarded response, and say that she needs first to listen to the wishes of the people of Scotland.
If a decisive majority of the Scots clearly and consistently press for independence, they will eventually achieve it: the UK government would not stand in their way.
But Scottish opinion may feel conflicted, if Scots are forced to choose between being European and being British. A vote for Brexit would change the terms of independence: if Scotland has to re-apply to join the EU, it might be required to join the euro; and if Scotland is inside the EU, but the rest of the UK is outside, there could for the first time be a hard land border between Scotland and England. A decision about independence would be hard to take without knowing the nature of the UK’s relationship with the EU.
How would Brexit affect Northern Ireland? If the vote is for Brexit, Sinn Féin would immediately call for a border poll, seeking to re-unite Northern Ireland with the Republic. The Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers (who supports Brexit) has already indicated that she will reject any such call.
More broadly, there are huge concerns about a vote to leave in the Republic, which could have destabilising effects on north and south.
Membership of the EU and commitment to the ECHR were a vital part of the Northern Ireland peace process and were written into the Belfast Agreement of 1998. EU funding has greatly helped the peace process, with four PEACE programmes contributing over €1.5bn. EU funding coming to Northern Ireland from seven different EU programmes will total some €3.5bn from 2014 to 2020.
Brexit could require reinstatement of a hard border between north and south: preventing immigration to the UK of EU nationals with freedom of movement to Ireland would only be possible by re-introducing border controls, if not on the border then at UK ports.
To retain their right to freedom of movement within the EU, unionists in the north might, in increasing numbers, apply for Irish passports, as they are entitled to under the terms of the Belfast Agreement.
There could also be a negative impact on trade: Ireland is the UK’s fifth largest export market, and crossborder trade is worth an estimated £65bn annually.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London