Brexit: The view from Northern Ireland

The challenges Northern Ireland now faces are significant, but shouldn't be overblown

The Northern Irish border, one of the softest in the world

Over the last few days most Remain commentators have talked about Northern Ireland in the same breath as Scotland — pro-Remain regions forced out of the EU by their English and Welsh neighbours.

But Northern Ireland was less enthusiastic about Remain than Scotland. In Scotland 62 per cent of voters voted to Remain while only 56 per cent of Northern Irish people did.

Northern Ireland’s Brexit debate in many ways was just like the rest of the UK: urban versus rural, old versus young, working-class versus middle-class, scepticism of European institutions and lots of xenophobia; but the result here can best explained through national identity.

These Wikipedia maps comparing the census results and the referendum results make the divide clear:

a NI identity


Identity still trumps everything else. The DUP, the biggest Unionist party, supported the Leave campaign while their rivals, the UUP, supported Remain.

The Nationalist parties were solidly behind Remain. The DUP will be happy with the result, while nationalist parties will be disappointed and dismayed by low turn-out in their areas.

Nationalists voted overwhelmingly for Europe not out of any particularly strong love for the institutions but out of a desire to remain as close as possible to their neighbours in the Republic of Ireland.

And it’s likely that overall Unionists voted narrowly for Leave. Many of those who did would have voted this way out of a belief that Northern Ireland should always wed itself as closely as possible to the British state.

No one knows what happens next for Northern Ireland. Too much has already been made about Sinn Féin’s call for a border poll. This was predictable, as was the British government’s refusal to grant it.

The British government have said they will only call a border poll when it seems likely that a majority of people in Northern Ireland want a United Ireland.

The open secret in Nationalist politics these days is that even Nationalists are happy with the current constitutional arrangement: they get the freedom to identify and live as Irish, while also getting the best elements of the British state, such as the NHS. That will not change in the short term.

However, Brexit does create a series of challenges for Northern Ireland.

As an economically depressed region of the EU and in support of the peace process, Northern Ireland has received billions of Euro from the EU. It is unlikely that more investment will come from central government to make up for this.

But the most thorny issue of Northern Ireland Brexit will be border controls.

The Northern Ireland border with the Republic of Ireland is one of the softest in the world. Only a change in the signage styles tells you that you are over the border.

This was one of the key parts of the Good Friday Agreement. Previously the border had been dotted with army checkpoints that made Nationalists feel like they were under occupation.

With peace and reduced security concerns these could be done away with. The worry is that with Brexit will come customs controls.

Passportless travel has always been possible between Britain and Ireland due to the Common Travel Area but customs checks existed before the two states joined the EU (then EC). Ask any older Nationalist why they voted Remain and they would likely say that dislike of these checkpoints was on their mind.

The result leaves the British and Irish governments in a difficult situation. How hard the border must become depends on what deal Britain gets from the EU, but they may be forced to impose customs checks along the border.

That will be very unpopular with the Nationalist community and potentially politically destabilising.

One unique feature of Northern Ireland is that all Northern Irish people have the right to have either a British or Irish passport. This existed before the EU and is very unlikely to change after Brexit.

What will change is that more people from a Unionist background will get an Irish passport, just in case they need it.

Since Friday Ian Paisley junior of the DUP has advised constituents to do just this and post offices in saw a surge in demand for application forms.

Identifying first as Northern Irish, rather than British or Irish, is still uncommon, but much more likely among young people.

The most prominent example is the golfer Rory McIlroy, who has avoided affiliating himself too clearly with either the Republic of Ireland or Britain. 

Some people go as far as getting two passports and now, for the first time, there is a practical and not just symbolic difference between them.

As Brexit continues, more people from traditionally Unionist backgrounds will get an Irish passport, but whether that means more young people will actually think of themselves as Northern Irish is unclear.

There is a widespread belief in the media that the peace process is about to get destroyed.

I understand that the province has a reputation as the problem child that has a tantrum every five minutes. But while the the eighteen-year-old agreement will need help and support from the Ma and Da British and Irish governments, it is a now a grown-up political system.

Both the biggest political parties in power in Northern Ireland represent the most extreme parts of the political spectrum but they want to make Stormont work.

People like Stormont. They have got used to peace.

Besides, no one is going to start an armed campaign over access to a free-trade area.

Stephen Buggy lives and works in Northern Ireland

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