Brexit: how it would play differently for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

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

  • SeaanUiNeill
  • willie drennan

    Sad, at this stage, that academics are still promoting the myth of an Irish land border following Brexit. The link below explains that there are already “systems” and “procedures” in place to address issues of customs and travel between EU and non-EU nations.
    .In this digital age there really is no need for physical land borders for purposes of customs between friendly nations. And the notion that the common travel/work agreements between UK and Ireland might collapse is surely just wild, wishful speculation?
    And remember, following a Leave vote there would be a two year period for negotiations to fine tune new arrangements..

  • Enda

    Nationalist Terrorist groups lol. Is the SDLP their political wing?

  • Enda

    A nationalist, and a proud Ulster man.

  • Enda

    I would think it’s relatively safe to assume that unlike Scotland, the South do have a realization that the six counties ‘may’ one day again become united with the other 26 counties, given the history and the fact that’s it’s one island it really isn’t that hard to fathom. Scotland on the other hand have never looked at this as a possibility, in fact upon bringing it up with a few Scots (I currently live in Edinburgh) on the run up to the referendum, it’s needless to say that I got a few skeptical raised eyebrows thrown back at me.

    It appears that ‘some’ Unionists on the Irish side of the Irish sea can be quite sycophantic in comparison to their ‘mainland’ neighbors when it come to retaining links to territories that they’re not physically attached to, but will do their utmost to ensure that the country they are attached to remains as divided as possible.

    To quote Franky Boyle: ‘Unionism: The belief that two similar countries might fair better together. Unless they’re both part of Ireland.’

  • Jollyraj

    “do their utmost to ensure that the country they are attached to remains as divided as possible.”

    Sounds like Northern Irish Republicans to me, mate.

  • Enda

    I’m not sure if I’d use the word accepted. Some people probably accepted them, but the attitude of the majority of people I know was general disgust towards the border and searches etc, in the general sense that it was a border being manned by people from Britain who didn’t belong here, – well for the most part by Brits, there were some Irish fellas in the UDR and RUC that also helped out, – and you couldn’t move 200yds in your car without being waved down, asked where you’re going, where you’re coming from etc etc. So yeah, accepted is a very loose term to use there.

  • Enda

    But the country already is divided because of unionism, it’s my understanding that nationalists/republicans seek to make it one constitutional entity again – you know – to unsure that the Island isn’t divided. Your statement makes no sense.

  • Enda

    ‘More historical, cultural, social similarities between NI and Scotland than NI and Ireland proper’

    Is this guy for real? Yes parts of Ulster has some Scots influence no doubt, but to say Scotland has more bearing on the place than the rest of the island is absolute nonsense lol.

    Both parts of Ireland have so many cross border bodies within sport, music, language, religion, commerce, tourism, politics, agriculture etc etc than Ulster does with Scotland.

    I live in Scotland. Not in the four years that I’ve lived here has a Scot shown much pride in ‘our shared cultures’ toward me. In fact I’ve encountered plenty of the opposite, where over nationalistic Scots have looked upon me as some sort of immigrant.

    Not much Nationalistic solidarity over here I’m afraid, well maybe except from a few nut jobs on the central west coast.

  • Enda

    It wouldn’t be a UK though, England could keep it’s monarchy 🙂 but we can’t forget about The Isle of Man, Brittany and Cornwall, they’d have to come too.

  • Jollyraj

    “Because of unionism”

    Hmm…the Irish Republican tendency to bookend all political thought with this sneering sentiment.

    Partition happened because two parts of the country wanted different things – one could as easily say it happened ‘because of ‘ hard’ Irish Republicanism. Moderate Irish Nationalism always knew better and – I’ve always thought – would very likely have acheived a United country by now. At least in sentiment, and probably in fact. But some Nationalists keep making the same mistake and caving to the extreme fringe, which shouts the loudest and has the more inventive storytellers. How the SDLP could have done with a Jackanory like Danny Morrison.

    Division in modern day Northern Ireland is as much as anything because of the Republican movement creating a somewhat manufactured version of Irishness which is designed intentionally to exclude unionists. Seems the strategy way back when was to snatch the (then) ‘Irish’ unionists identity away from them as a form of moral and cultural disenfranchisement.

    Well, it did work to an extent – if the goal was to create a profound antipathy towards all things ‘Irish’ in most of the population if Northern Ireland – but dashed inconvenient now that you’ve realized you will need to win back hearts and minds.

    Much like the attempts to demonize Orange parades serves to make it even less likely that many non- nationalists would feel comfortable voting for a UI. And not just unionists – but people of all stripes (including new immigrants – and certainly those from former Soviet Union controlled countries, who must indeed be wary of the Shinners with their neo-Marxism and ‘Collectives’ in the likes of Ardoyne) who see clearly enough how Republicans act when they have a majority. Irish Republicanism is generally very self-congratulatory on being so darned clever – shocking how unsuccessful they’ve been in achieving the only goal they’ve had for the last century.

  • Enda

    I have very little love for the mainstream parties in NI, and who has a monopoly on what has been a tit for tat game for generations.

    Both side have their toys that they’re unwilling to share. Irish people from Ulster, – and by that I mean those who look at the queen as a old lady from London and not anything else – tend to see things like the GAA, the gaelic language, Irish music, and their communities as things that makes them Irish, and in the modern sense it does, the other Irish folk from Ulster, the ones who espouse their allegiances to Britain, which of course some people see as completely different in every way to Ulster, which, it is, they also have their communities, flags and whatever else, but they do seem to have less culturally than nationalists when it comes to the Irish nation, which isn’t really fair, but is simply a product of nationalists being more at ease when it comes to embracing their Irishness, where loyalists/unionists would probably feel like they’re selling themselves out if they embraced the same things.

    And I wouldn’t lay blame entirely with Republicans. The point I’m trying to make is that republicans/nationalists seek to unite the whole Island as a political entity. Yes their politics is divisive when it come to the province, but so is the DUP’s policies. I read their manifesto with a raised eyebrow, as I did with Sinn Fein’s.

    Also part of the problem is having fraternities like the OO that only let adherents of the reformed faith join – that in itself is divisive. It just seeks to further the ‘themmuns’ mentality.

    I watched Arlene on telly not long ago when I was back home for a visit, it was on the run up to the elections. When asked her nationality she replied – ‘I’m first and foremost British, and I’m from Northern Ireland so I’m also Northern Irish. And when the Irish rugby team is playing, then I’m an Irish woman.’ I sat there with my ma in the living room, who was laughing at the first minister, and I said, ‘FFS sake Arlene, you can’t have it every way, you see yourself as one or the other.’ Talk about having your cake and eating it.

    And that’s just it. Northern Ireland, politically has become so much of a nonsense place, that we now have to cherry pick who we are. Well, it’s as simple as this. I was born on the Island of Ireland, in the province of Ulster. I’m first and foremost an Irishman, and secondly an Ulsterman from the Co of Tyrone, bureaucracy and pieces of cloth blowing in the wind mean nothing to me.

  • Jollyraj

    “In fact I’ve encountered plenty of the opposite, where over nationalistic Scots have looked upon me as some sort of immigrant.”

    Pretty accurate description of the Ulster Protestant experience in NI, for over nationalistic Scots read ‘over nationalistic Irish Republicans’

  • Jollyraj

    ‘Have to’?

    Would you respect their choice if they didn’t want to?

  • Enda

    Of course, but they would at least deserve the option don’t you think?

  • Enda

    But the fact is that it didn’t bother me. They’re Scottish, they have a right to be nationalistic about their homeland. There was perhaps a lack of knowledge mixed with a bit of ignorance on their part when it came to them seeing me as some sort of immigrant. A lot of people on the island of Britain don’t appear to be as politically or historically well informed as people from some parts of Ireland (particularly from the north of the Island), having little knowledge of the common travel area etc, but it doesn’t bother me one bit that they see me as an Irish man living in their nation, because, well, I am.

  • Enda

    I’m basing my vote on caution rather than fear.