Article Published April 26th, 2016
by Brendan Donnelly, Director, The Federal Trust
This article was first published on the LSE BrexitVote blog.
Much concern has already been expressed by some British commentators about the possible implications for Scotland of a vote for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union on 23rd June. Less comment has until now been directed, at least on the British mainland, to the implications of such a vote for Northern Ireland. Commentators and politicians in both halves of Ireland have been less reticent. The former Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern, recently warned that a British decision to leave the Union would be “negative in every way” for Anglo-Irish relations, in particular for exchanges between Northern Ireland and its southern neighbour.
In the same way as Scotland is widely expected to return a majority in favour of remaining in the EU, it is highly likely that a clear majority of the voters in Northern Ireland will wish to remain in the European Union on 23rd June. The overwhelming majority of the nationalist community will vote to do so, and a significant minority of the unionist community. Opposition to the European Union will be led at a political level by the Democratic Unionist Party, traditionally seen as the more intransigent wing of Ulster Unionism. A success for the DUP and its English allies in forcing Northern Ireland out of the European Union against the wishes of the majority in Northern Ireland can hardly be seen as a contribution to the lessening of historic sectarian tensions in Ireland.
It is not by chance that in the Good Friday agreement of 1998, which has done much to reduce these tensions in recent years, so much emphasis is laid on the membership of both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland in the European Union. Nationalist sentiment in Ireland since 1973 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 viewed 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.
If the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will be both an external border of the European Union and the only external land border of the UK itself. It is difficult to believe that this can have no restraining implications for the passage of goods and people between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Northern Ireland is currently a major beneficiary of European funds, for the continuation of which there is no guarantee from purely British sources. 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 European Union. 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.
Taking all the above considerations into account, it is clear that much potential exists for the destabilization of Northern Ireland through a vote to leave the Union on 23rd June. The Good Friday agreement is under more strain from a currently low level of sectarian violence than is sometimes appreciated on the mainland. The risks to the integrity of the United Kingdom arising from BREXIT are at least as great in Northern Ireland as they are in Scotland.