Northern Ireland and Brexit


Those unused to the Northern Irish political scene can find it very difficult to interpret and that is certainly the case when it comes to interpret the vote that the country made in favour of remaining within the European Union. Of course not everyone realizes that it is more complicated than they are able to grasp and we have wild claims being made such as Suzanne Moore asserting in The Guardian that Ireland will seek reunification. It certainly will not as only Sinn Fein has called for this. It has been rejected by the opposition nationalist party SDLP, the Irish government, the official Irish opposition, and hardline republicans. Sinn Fein may be the second largest party in the Northern Irish government, but them asking for something does not mean that it will happen.

To understand any political claims about Northern Ireland it is important to understand how to read maps and more particularly to understand the ethnic dominance in different parts of that map. If you look at the BBC referendum results map you will see that Scotland is solid orange (for remain), while Northern Ireland has a contiguous segment of blue (for leave) in its north east quarter. Due to the politics of those of Protestant heritage in Northern Ireland sometimes being referred to as orange you have the anomaly that the bits on the map that are blue are the most orange and the bits that are orange are those that are either green or less orange. Confused? So are most people dealing with Northern Ireland's ethnic diversity. In terms of the longer term ethnic groups in Northern Ireland that subscribe to the unionist/loyalist/Protestant nationalist/republican/Catholic divide there are three main groups. Those identifying as Protestant heritage make up 48% and Catholic heritage 45% according to the 2011 census. Those of Protestant heritage come from a primarily Scottish ethnicity associated with the Irish Presbyterian Church or a primarily English ethnicity associated with the Church of Ireland. The Roman Catholic community is associated with an Irish ethnicity, but this is the religious heritage group most experiencing an ethnic diversification due to the influx of Catholic identified citizens of other European Union states. Those blue parts of the map are where Presbyterians primarily settled, but they are not high population areas with the exception of East Belfast, which voted narrowly for leave in a proportion (51.4% to 48.6%) close to the United Kingdom overall result (51.9% to 48.1). There are remain voting areas of sizeable Presbyterian settlement, but those areas that are most dominated by those of a Presbyterian heritage coincides with the areas that voted leave.

Another factor is that these leave areas being in the north east quarter are located in the only quarter of Northern Ireland that does not have contact with the border. Although the border is an important factor politically to these communities, a resumption of custom checkpoints would not have much direct impact on their lives. These areas are economically as left behind as leave voting areas in England, but most of the remain voting areas in Northern Ireland are just as left behind, if not more so. These leave areas have high levels of support for the main governing party, the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), which was the only major political party in Northern Ireland to officially back the leave campaign. Indeed the most active leave campaigner was probably Sammy Wilson, the MP for East Antrim, which covers much of the eastern coast in this leave voting area. The areas and leave majorities were as follows:

Area Majority %
East Antrim 4313 10.4%
North Antrim 12156 24.4%
South Antrim 557 1.2%
Belfast East 1190 2.8%
Lagan Valley 2994 6.2%
Strangford 4656 11.0%
Upper Bann 2712 4.2%

Those margins for leave are generally very small, especially in terms of numbers of votes rather than percentage difference. In comparison to remain voting areas they make little impact as the first area to declare in Foyle had a remain majority of 23159, whereas all those leave majorities combined only come to 28021. The overall remain majority in Northern Ireland was 91265 or 10.6% of valid votes cast. That is a very clear majority, but with the leave vote having a geographic and possibly ethnic concentration it would be unwise in the context of Northern Ireland's volatile society to only deal with those who voted remain in any Northern Irish contributions to the Brexit negotiations.

The prospect of a border poll has been rejected by every party except Sinn Fein, but was there ever a valid basis for their demand? All that a referendum reveals is the answers given to the question asked. Sinn Fein might enjoy being in the unusual position of being in the majority voting bloc, but with the Ulster Unionists in the same bloc it can hardly be used as a basis for ascertaining if over 50% of the population would vote for a reunification with the rest of Ireland. This is especially so as the ability to judge someone's view on the border by their religious cultural identity. The figures from the 2011 census are instructive where 40% identified as British only, 25% as Irish only, and 21% as Northern Irish only. It also found that 59% held a UK passport and 21% an Irish passport. Those figures suggest that although the Protestant proportion of the Northern Irish population has declined below 50% other factors do not signify that over 50% would vote for the removal of the border.

While the referendum did not provide evidence for holding a border poll the overall UK vote to leave the European Union has left worries about what will happen with the border. None of the political parties wants a return to the restricted border crossings of the more violent years of the past, but it is unclear what solution will be found. The Republic of Ireland has such an extensive coastline that the land border is probably the least of its concerns from a smuggling perspective and warnings from the Irish government about re-establishing border posts may well turn out to be a hangover from their strong campaign for the United Kingdom to remain in the European Union. In terms of immigration the Republic of Ireland is not part of the Schengen Agreement and so while EU citizens may move to live in Ireland, undocumented travel is not possible. One possibility is for immigration checks to occur at ports and airports in Britain and not to check someone's residency status until they seek to travel away from Northern Ireland. These matters will be up for negotiation, but if an open border has existed with different currencies on either side I do not think that the border issue will be anywhere as complicated a problem as was claimed during the referendum campaign.

© Mercia McMahon. All rights reserved