Eilis O’Hanlon: ‘After Brexit, Irish unity could be scuppered by a new Project Fear’
Opponents of Brexit may be teaching the enemies of a united Ireland how to banjax a future border poll
Fresh from frothing indignation at the fake news that the Brits were set on starving the Irish in the event of a No Deal Brexit, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald is now demanding a unity poll should the UK drag the North out of the EU without a withdrawal agreement.
From a republican point of view, this demand, issued in the Dail last week and in a phone call to the UK prime minister, sounds superficially appealing, even if it does contradict Mary Lou’s own assertion in the summer that a “chaotic Brexit” was not the right time to hold such a vote. Clearly she’s fallen into line with those who call the shots.
It’s not just the Provos who think opinion has shifted in Northern Ireland in response to Brexit, mind. A significant proportion of unionists don’t want to leave the EU either, including farmers, once the most stolid supporters of the DUP. It wouldn’t take many of them to switch sides to swing a majority for a united Ireland. Former DUP leader Peter Robinson told this year’s MacGill Summer School in Glenties that, while he didn’t expect Irish unity imminently, unionists should start preparing for losing a border poll anyway.
Before republicans get out the bunting, a word of caution.
Detailed studies indicate lower support for a united Ireland than opinion polls suggest. Demographics are not destiny. In the last census, 45pc of people in the North self-identified as Catholic, but only 25pc gave their nationality as Irish. Four in 10 people in the North also don’t vote at all, largely Protestants, which has allowed SF to draw neck and neck with the DUP in Stormont and Westminster elections, but these stay at homes probably would come out for a border poll, and it’s optimistic to suggest they’d vote to become a minority.
The greater danger for SF in any border poll is that the very tactics which have been used in an effort to thwart Brexit would inevitably be deployed against those arguing for a united Ireland, and, having become part of the resistance to the constitutional change involved in the UK’s exit from Europe, republicans wouldn’t have a leg to stand on when it came to countering the same tactics this time.
Brexiteers in the UK call this Project Fear, and it would have plenty to work with on this side of the Irish Sea, too.
The first hurdle would be the need for Northern Ireland to adopt a new currency. It’s not hard to imagine how that could be spun negatively.
Other concerns would soon follow, not least the loss of the NHS. Hospitals in the North may be in perpetual crisis, but that doesn’t mean people will leap for joy at the prospect of paying €50 of their new money to see a doctor. Nor will taking on a chunk of Ireland’s national debt from the bail-out exactly be a vote winner.
A more serious challenge to winning a border poll would be that Irish unity would erect a barrier between the North and its largest external market. Sales to the rest of the UK may have dropped by 20pc last year, thanks to a “substantial fall” in sales of food and beverages, and exports to the Republic may have risen by 16pc; but the figures speak for themselves.
Trade with the UK brings in £21.4bn to the Northern Irish economy; exports to the Republic amount to just £3.9bn. Just as Britons have been urged to reflect on the wisdom of raising obstacles against their biggest trading partner, so might Ulster baulk at the risks; and the share of trade which goes between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is, proportionally, much greater than that between the UK and EU.
Is Northern Ireland ready to treat mainland Britain as a foreign country? Especially considering the large annual deficit between what Northern Ireland needs to get by and what it brings in to the Exchequer. There would need to be public sector job losses and cuts to services post-unity. Even with the UK continuing to provide some financial back-up for a period after reunification, it would still be a gamble.
German unification is often held up as a model, but, decades on, East Germany still lags behind its western neighbour; Ulster may well wonder if that is its fate in an Irish rerun.
All of these concerns could be alleviated with skilful economic management in the long term, but they would need to survive the white hot crucible of a divisive campaign first. Similar concerns ultimately halted the nationalist tide in Scotland.
Graver still would be the threat of renewed violence. In September, a group comprising academics and self-styled “human rights experts” warned that “there is a real danger Brexit could re-ignite conflict here”, Brexiteers dismissed that as scaremongering, too, but it’s certainly been effective. Even the Taoiseach has banged that doleful drum.
With Brexit, the risk comes from a rump of dissident republicans, using a hard border as a recruiting sergeant. The threat after a vote for Irish unity would be from loyalist paramilitaries intent on overthrowing the result, or on carving out a small bit of the Six Counties to occupy – their own backstop, as it were.
Such violence would be wholly unjustifiable, but since when did that ever stop extremists in Northern Ireland? History suggests there would be trouble in the event of a wafer-thin majority for a united Ireland.
Fingers crossed it would be short-lived, but the prospect of bloodshed after unity would undoubtedly be a powerful card to play in any campaign, as it has been in the fight back against Brexit.
It gets worse. Nationalists enjoy a pretty good deal when it comes to referendums. Those in favour of independence only need to attain the magical “50pc plus one” margin to get what they want. There’s not even a minimum requirement when it comes to turnout.
When the referendum was held to see if Wales wanted a devolved National Assembly, the result was 50.3pc for and 49.7pc against, on a turnout of just 50.2pc. There was no quibble – no calls for a rerun – the Welsh parliament was set up. The same rules would apply in respect of Irish unity.
But if 52/48 is too narrow a victory to endorse a withdrawal from the European Union, can a similarly squeaky victory really be sufficient to justify dramatic constitutional change in Northern Ireland, with all the attendant chaos, economic hardship, and possible violence it might cause?
There’s an argument that it shouldn’t, given the higher stakes. Even if Britain does leave the EU at the end of March, there will always be a chance of coming back at some point, albeit under much less favourable terms. If Irish unity happens, that’s it.
So shouldn’t the bar be set higher? Yet when some unionist voices suggested that there ought to be a two-thirds majority for unity in order to pass, there was consternation from nationalists.
As it happens, they were right to resist; you can’t go changing the rules of the game at this stage.
But there’s little logic in decrying those who are reluctant to accept narrow majorities when the whole of the Irish body politic is happily deploying the same argument against those who want Brexit to go ahead.
Right now, SF is part of that club, gleefully emboldened as they wrong foot the ancient English enemy; but be careful what you wish for. Not only could every tactic now being exploited to undo Brexit be just as readily used in a gloves-off referendum campaign to snatch away from pro-unity supporters in Ireland their own longed for dream.
Worse than that for republicans would be the belated realisation that they had colluded in their own defeat by helping the forces resisting change to refine and hone their tactics.
To say that would be awkward for Mary Lou McDonald is putting it mildly, but there would be a delicious irony to it alright.