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COVID and Brexit Have Pushed Northern Ireland Further Away From the UK

The first six weeks of Brexit have not been sunlit uplands for Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Protocol, the part of the Brexit deal that means the UK applies EU customs rules to goods entering Northern Ireland, has caused food supply problems, with shoppers finding supermarket shelves empty. Even key Brexit backers such as DUP leader Arlene Foster and Baroness Kate Hoey have complained about the delays caused to deliveries to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK as a result of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

On the other hand, the EU has mounted pressure on the British government for not actually enforcing the Protocol yet. The EU also ramped up tensions itself by triggering, and then quickly backing out of triggering, Article 16, a provision in the Protocol that would have essentially mounted a hard border within Ireland for COVID-19 vaccines.

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To Irish republicans, the solution to this political storm is simple.

“We can have our referendum, win it and win it well in the course of this decade,” declared Mary Lou McDonald, leader of Irish republican party Sinn Féin in December 2020. The referendum in question: A vote on whether Northern Ireland should leave the United Kingdom, of which is it currently a constituent part, and become part of the Republic of Ireland.

Republicans have been trying to reunite the island of Ireland ever since it was partitioned in 1921. Predictions of an impending united Ireland are nothing new – former Sinn Féin MP Martin McGuinness predicted one by 2016 in 2003. What’s different now is that they come in the wake of Brexit.

Brexit has fundamentally changed the nature of the union – more than it has in the past, Northern Ireland being yoked to the UK means being divided from its southern neighbour. Even the previously Eurosceptic Sinn Féin now promote EU membership as a plus for Irish unity.

In Northern Ireland, 56 per cent voted in favour of remaining in the EU. These voters then watched the British Government and DUP try to crowbar them out of a union they didn’t want to leave, while toying with the idea of mounting a hard border in Ireland between the Republic and Northern Ireland through a no-deal Brexit that could have left different trade conditions on either side of the border and required checks along it.

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Dissatisfaction with the union with Britain is no longer the preserve of republicans in Northern Ireland. And it shows electorally; following the loss of the local Assembly’s unionist majority in 2017, the 2019 general election returned a non-unionist majority of MPs in Northern Ireland for the first time. Of the 18 Westminster seats up for grabs, eight went to the unionist and pro-Brexit DUP, nine to the republican and anti-Brexit Sinn Féin and SDLP and one to the anti-Brexit Alliance Party.

“Brexit has had an effect in the sense that the salience of the debate has gone up, there’s a lot more public discussion about the potential for a referendum on a united Ireland,” says John Garry, a Professor of Political Behaviour at Queen’s University Belfast.

Aside from Brexit, things have changed more fundamentally in Northern Ireland; founded 100 years ago with the idea of maintaining a Protestant majority in perpetuity, it’s expected that this year’s census will return a Catholic majority for the first time. While being Catholic doesn’t necessarily mean being a republican, it does certainly play a part. University of Liverpool research shows that 72.3 percent of Catholics who voted in the 2019 UK general election support the eventual reunification of Ireland.

The most recent indicator of the appetite for a border poll came just last weekend through a Sunday Times poll by LucidTalk that found that 51 per cent of people in Northern Ireland wanted a vote to be held within the next five years. However, the wish to hold the poll does not automatically equate to support for a united Ireland; the same poll found that 47 per cent were in favour of keeping the union with Britain, 42 per cent in favour of Irish unification, and 11 per cent were undecided.

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LucidTalk polling is typically the most reliable of Northern polls and this is their sixth post-Brexit poll on the issue. Two have shown a majority for unification, four have shown a preference for the union. Notably, all have returned double figure percentage figures of undecided voters.

The news of the latest poll was greeted with approval in republican circles; Sinn Féin leader in the North Michelle O’Neill said that it showed “an unstoppable conversation is underway” and SDLP leader Eastwood said that it showed a “desire for a new future”.

Nevertheless, Republicans would still need to sway some of those undecided voters.  “While it’s reasonable to say that there’s more salience of the issue now in Northern Ireland and more Catholics now would be in favour than they used to be, it’s still a good way off a majority in my view,” says Garry.

“If Brexit had… initiated a hardening of the north/south border, then my research would indicate that that would have led to a quite significant shift in opinion amongst Catholics towards being in favour of a united Ireland,” he says. A hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic was averted in the final Brexit deal, with the Northern Ireland Protocol ensuring that the border remains open.

A referendum is not going to happen immediately anyway. One major barrier is the fact that governments in both Ireland and the UK simply don’t want one. The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) states that the Secretary of State is obliged to call a border poll, “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland”.

Quizzed in Westminster by SDLP leader Colum Eastwood on what the criteria for this would be, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis replied that there is “no legal requirement” for him to provide such an outline. In January, Lewis’s office again refused to provide any such criteria. This ambiguity is an issue in itself; campaigners insist that Lewis must do so, but the Good Friday Agreement makes no mention of criteria having to be outlined, or what that criteria might be.

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The border poll requires an identical poll to be held in the Republic, where Taoiseach Micheál Martin has ruled it out within the lifetime of his government, mandated to 2025. The prospect of a referendum is still a distant one despite the too-close-to-call nature of the opinion polls.

Brexit and COVID-19 have been “game changers”, says Martina Devlin, the writer, journalist and member of the Board of Management for Ireland’s Future, a non-affiliated civic group that campaigns for a border poll. Pandemic-fighting tactics in both jurisdictions were undermined by a lack of coordination – during 2020, lockdowns happened at different times in either jurisdiction, meaning pubs and offices were open or shut within miles of each other around a border with at least 268 crossing points used by roughly 30,000 daily commuters in normal times. Dr Gabriel Scally, the former Director of Public Health for both Belfast and England’s South West, has consistently argued that the virus could be controlled more effectively through an all-Ireland approach.

“The logic of two jurisdictions on this small island no longer applies,” says Devlin.

Foster, leader of the DUP and First Minister of Northern Ireland, has dismissed the notion of a border poll as “divisive”. This is a change from 2013, when she warned republicans to be “careful what you wish for”, threatening to “call the bluff” of Sinn Féin by backing a border poll in the hope that a victory for unionists would cement Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. It’s a shift in rhetoric that reflects how far the ground has shifted in that time.

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