As the fallout from Salzburg continues, there has been a renewed focus by remain voters in Great Britain to push for a second referendum. Campaigners want a rerun of the June 2016 referendum or a vote on the Brexit deal. Jeremy Corbyn is currently under pressure to back another vote at the Labour conference.
There’s a perception that a second referendum would be relatively straight forward in Northern Ireland because it voted ‘remain’. In an ideal world, that would be the case. I’m not so sure. Campaigners are wrong to think that a second vote wouldn’t be as divisive as a border poll.
We talk a lot about the result of the referendum but not its aftermath. Since June 2016 Brexit has become even more of an orange and green issue. You can see this in the way the ‘remain’ vote has fragmented and split. The UUP now aligns itself with the DUP because of its opposition to the backstop. The party didn’t go with the Green Party, Alliance, SDLP and Sinn Fein to Brussels to talk to Michel Barnier.
Ulster unionism is always conflicted between British unionism and Ulster nationalism. Political unionism will flip between either position for political convenience. For the moment it has decided that any special deal for Northern Ireland is anti-unionist. The term ‘pan-nationalist’ is thrown at anyone who supports a unique solution.
In a similar vein, anyone with any qualms about a border down the Irish sea is seen to be on par with the DUP. Reasonable concerns about access to trade are dismissed out of hand as being nothing more than unionist fury.
For people that identify as neither unionist or nationalist, they are caught in the middle. Their opinions are used by either side as fodder.
The debate in Northern Ireland has moved on and become something else. It’s not just about Brexit anymore.
On the 18th September Martina Anderson said in an interview with Radio Foyle that ‘the people of Ireland need to decide which union they want to belong to, the union with Britain or the EU.’ I was struck by the soundbite because a member of the DUP could have said exactly the same thing.
A lot will depend on the parameters of a second vote but I think it will be pitched in Northern Ireland as a de facto border poll. You could argue that every election is a poll in all but name but another referendum will be unique. It could be a nightmare for unionists who voted ‘remain’ and people who identify as ‘other.’
The Tories are opposed to a second referendum because they think it will undermine the integrity of their Brexit plans. A second vote could, however, be incredibly useful. It could confirm Northern Ireland’s position on the backstop and the future relationship.
I’m in two minds about a second referendum but I think campaigners should be allowed to argue for one. They should be aware that a second referendum could be re-purposed for a different agenda. If they want the debate to focus on Brexit and the EU, they’re going to have to grapple with the current political landscape.
Sarah is a writer and lawyer from Belfast.