Brexit: Implications For Irish Unity

The United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union (EU) has led to Nicola Sturgeon cautiously testing the waters of “IndyRef 2, the pound sterling depreciating below a 31-year low, and the Prime Minister announcing his resignation. Regardless of whatever leanings people have on Brexit, it has undeniably led to some very obvious short-term instability in British politics. But Brexit has also had a very interesting implication on Irish politics, which needless to say, has a history of division and disunity itself.

The implications on Northern Ireland have been understated in the run up to the Referendum. Indeed, Leave voters have been centralised in England (excluding London) and Wales whereas Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain, with the Northern Irish voting 55.7 percent remain. This of course suggests fragmentation between Northern Ireland and other parts of Britain, but it also represents a deeper underlying disunity within Northern Ireland. The map on the left shows counties that voted to remain in the EU in Yellow, and the counties that voted to leave are shown in Blue. This is even more interesting when compared to the 2010 General Election Results shown in the map below:

Dark green and light green represent Republican parties Sinn Fein and SDLP, who want to reunify with the Republic of Ireland. Red shows the DUP, a Unionist party which wants to stay in the United Kingdom. The striking correlation between these two maps illustrates that the predominantly Republican areas of Northern Ireland want to stay in the European Union, whereas predominantly Unionist areas want to leave the European Union.

Given Northern Ireland voted 55.8 percent in favour of remaining in the EU, there is a strong indication Republican sentiment in Northern Ireland may be increasing. Certainly, Republicanism is likely to have been catalysed by the Brexit result. Indeed, this can be demonstrated by the recent influx in Irish passport applications since Brexit.

Most notably of all, Ian Paisley Jr. recommended that Northern Irish citizens should apply for an Irish passport if eligible for one. Many Northern Irish citizens have taken this up, with Belfast Central Post Office even running out of application forms, symbolising that some Unionists are putting their support for the EU above their opposition to embracing Irish identity. Of course, Ireland’s continued presence as an EU member will mean that the desire of the Northern Irish to remain in the European Union may tip the balance of a border poll in favour of a united Ireland.

This is especially significant as Northern Ireland has not traditionally been in favour of reunifying with the Republic in the past. Having said that, it has never been put to a formal referendum, so it is difficult to know how people would vote if given the option in the polling booths, where they are protected from the influences of social and political pressures. There was the 1973 Border Poll, but Nationalists abstained from voting because of the biased way in which the question was phrased, so this is not considered a representation of the views of the people of Northern Ireland.

There is a plethora of reasons as to why the Northern Irish are worried about the Brexit decision. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland share culture, language, history, and of course, an open border. At present, passports are not needed to travel between the two countries, and checkpoints are limited. However, with this border now becoming a land border between the European Union and the United Kingdom, stricter borders may be put in place. This will reduce social cohesion between the North and the Republic, it will limit trade, and most importantly, it will infringe on the Good Friday Agreement, which has kept the peace in Ireland for 20 years.

Martin McGuiness, the Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland and a member of Sinn Fein, has called for a Referendum on Northern Ireland’s Independence. There are no surprises here, given Sinn Fein’s political leanings.

However, it is not Sinn Fein’s calls for a referendum that is most newsworthy. This was always to be expected in the wake of a Brexit vote. What is most newsworthy is the fact that it isn’t a foregone conclusion that the North would remain in the United Kingdom. And given recent unexpected Referendum results in favour of “Leave”, who could blame one for wondering if a next referendum could favour leaving as well.

In the simplest terms, Northern Ireland must now decide what Unions they want to be a part of. Economically, Northern Ireland has performed poorly in the United Kingdom. It has some of the lowest economic growth in the UK and this is set to continue post Brexit. This is in stark contrast to the forecasts of benefit to both the Republic and the North of Ireland that could occur if a United Ireland was established. There is also a democratic mandate for a United Ireland given that the Northern Irish voted in favour of the European Union but would still be forced to leave under continued union with the UK. The cultural and political divides that are present in Northern Ireland will continue regardless of whatever outcome is decided on and there will be little chance of avoiding this. However, given the political and economic benefits, reunification with Ireland is likely to be the most beneficial outcome for Northern Ireland. Yet it is clear the North will face a minefield of political obstacles before this can be achieved.

Author Biography 

Jonathan Purcell recently finished school at Reading School in Reading, Berkshire. He is hoping to read History at University College London this September. As a citizen of both countries, he has a particular interest in Irish-British relations, and also has an interest in development politics.

Cover Image Union Jack by Smabs Sputzer


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