Decision time is upon us, in just a few days we will have to decide whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union. In Northern Ireland, we have had a much more civil and even tempered campaign than the one we have seen across the water. Like the rest of the UK, the polls here have shown a narrowing of the gap as Unionists increase their support for Brexit and elements within Nationalism have become indifferent or secretly hope that a Brexit will cause the break up of the UK, but I want to call time on this theory.
Let’s start off with Scotland, often seen as the first domino to fall in a potential Brexit scenario, but it is worth quoting the words of the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, who points out the flaw in the logic of independence supporters backing Brexit as she said;
If Scotland votes to leave and there is a leave vote across the whole of the UK then our immediate future is Scotland in the UK, out of Europe, facing a UK government led by the likes of Boris Johnson that if it is possible to believe this would be even more right wing than that led by David Cameron and George Osborne.
That’s not the sort of situation I want to see arise, so if that’s your consideration as an independence supporter, then the only logical thing to do is to vote remain.
Why on earth would a pro-independence leader not be chomping at the bit to hold another vote? At the moment North Sea oil revenues are at rock bottom creating a huge budget deficit and the major underpinning of the case for independence has largely disappeared as a result. Why would the SNP launch a another referendum when oil prices are at rock bottom to simply pile another negotiation for independence on top of the British government’s negotiation for exiting the EU, when reports are already coming through about concerns about “referendum fatigue” within Scotland. In short, Sturgeon will need space and time to construct a new narrative for independence before she considers a successful tilt at another referendum.
The SNP have studied the rise and fall of the Quebec Nationalist movement, who narrowly missed out on their on the second chance for independence in 1995 and have been left nowhere to go ever since.
Sturgeon’s warning to her followers is right, there is a temptation to cut corners and see Brexit as an opportunity for independence but none of this addresses the wider implications for Scotland in terms of re-applying for membership and joining the Euro. All of these issues could stop the case for independence dead in its tracks.
Now, I come back home.
I know there is a temptation out there that, voting for Brexit could lead to our own Border poll. However, any Nationalists that are voting solely on that basis need to have a re-think.
Think about our collective capacity to deliver the poll in the first place, we have just come off one of the worst collective Nationalist results in years at Assembly level. Our bloc in the chamber is smaller than it has ever been since 1998 and we have a buoyant DUP, who make up a majority of the Executive who can just very easily say no. This is all before you convince a Secretary of State that the public demand is there for one in the first place and add into that convincing the Irish government to hold a matching vote in the South to agree to unification.
Say you get a referendum, then what? It will take years to negotiate an exit from the European Union and like a possible Scottish referendum, you will have a harder time creating a simple case for Irish unity as you will be competing for time and space on top of a Brexit negotiation and not to mention the possibility of referendum fatigue taking hold.
Then what if we lose? We are out of the EU and remaining within the UK. The worst of all worlds for a Nationalist voter.
For decades, Nationalists have used the EU as the body to show that the border is irrelevant in Ireland. That is what led leaders like John Hume to make the case forcefully for our membership of the then EEC. His vision of using the EU to bridge our differences and support key parts of infrastructure that brings us together such as the Belfast to Dublin rail service, road projects connecting North and South and bringing down of trade barriers are just some of the many things that all of Ireland being a member of the EU achieves for us. The fact is that modern Nationalism’s EU inheritance charts all the way back to Sean Lemass and right the way through to today. Why squander this on a very vague maybe?
If you want a border poll that can achieve meaningful unity, then cutting corners through a Brexit vote is not the way to do it. Brexit is in many ways for Nationalists cul de sac that could lead more barriers between North and South and the potential of the border becoming hardened in some respects.
I am not worried about a leap into the dark, I am worried about a drive right back down the time tunnel to the 1980’s.
The EU debate is complex, there are many reasons to vote for either side. But if you are seriously contemplating voting Brexit on the sole issue of a possible border poll, just be careful what you wish for as you could end up no closer to a poll and further away from Southern Ireland.
David McCann holds a PhD in North-South relations from University of Ulster. You can follow him on twitter @dmcbfs