Will a Brexit also break up the UK?

23 Apr 2016


Scottish Nationalists may benefit from a fresh opportunity to leave the UK, but Irish Nationalists fear they will only be divided again by border controls


The frontline in the battle over the future of Britain’s membership of the European Union will be places like my hometown Derry, which straddles the border with county Donegal in the Republic of Ireland. The lives of people living in these two counties are interlinked through kinship, sporting and economic ties. I have fond memories of spending summers on Donegal’s Atlantic coastline. There are the everyday routines such as going to get petrol and then there are the trips to visit family and friends on the other side of the border. All of this causes Irish nationalists such as myself to feel like Irish unity is already achieved, culturally and practically, if not yet politically.


However, I can only enjoy these experiences because I am of a generation that has never known border checks when driving to the Republic. The Single European Act was a catalyst in the greater integration between the two jurisdictions, preceding the paramilitaries’ ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement, helping to create an environment for me to grow up in that is vastly different to that experienced by my parents’ generation. As such, what I fear most are the consequences that may entail from a vote in favour of the UK leaving the European Union. The realm of unknowns is unparalleled - there is a level of uncertainty that I believe puts at risk the great steps taken by the peace process. Brexit would transform Northern Ireland into a society where nationalists had a far more tangible sense of living under the authority of a British state, especially so if this was followed by the reimplementation of border checks. It is difficult to envisage life in Northern Ireland just "going on as usual" if partition from the Republic (in the form of border checks) was reintroduced.     


It is hard to travel far in Northern Ireland without seeing infrastructure schemes featuring the stars of the European Union’s flag. There are countless EU funded community projects that seek to reconcile us to the horrors of the past and create environments where future generations can integrate, interact and enjoy themselves irrespective of their political or religious affiliation. Furthermore, there is the distinct threat of economic repercussions. Ireland’s biggest trading partner remains the UK, but this trade is disproportionately important to the NI economy, as we benefit from the cross border shoppers that besiege towns such as Newry, providing impetus to an economic landscape that is still far too barren - referred to by Michael Noonan, the Irish Finance Minister as a “welfare economy.”


It is from this personal concern that I have began to wonder about the implications on the nations of the UK if a Brexit were to occur. In the event of English votes dragging Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales out of the European Union would this give momentum to nationalists all over the UK?


It can be very easily argued that a Brexit gives the Scottish National Party justification to rally towards a second referendum on Scottish independence. One of the fears that No campaigners played on during the 2014 referendum was the potential of an Independent Scotland being excluded from EU membership. In the event that the Scotland’s southern neighbours vote to drag it out of the EU against its own wishes, it would not only give a perfect example of English votes determining the futures of Scottish citizens, but it would also eliminate one major nightmare scenario which the Better Together camp warned about previously.


But, for Northern Ireland, the prospect that a Leave vote would occur (or even could occur) endangers its political stability, economic growth and progress that has been so hard fought for since the dark days of the Troubles. The promises of Leave campaigners that any money lost in EU funding would be replaced is laughable. The old adage that an English Parliament will never vote in the interests of the Irish people remains just as true today. Any net economic benefits (though it is doubtful there would be any in the event of a Brexit), will not be felt by Northern Irish farmers, consumers or employers, but would instead go straight to the Tory heartlands in the South of England. 


The likely verdict of this referendum is far from settled, but the uncertainty about the consequences of a Brexit matter far beyond the Westminster Bubble. In Scotland, it will give a second wind to a nationalist party determined to get the decision that they want this time around, but it would also lead to an arrangement in Northern Ireland that is resented by the nationalist community there, and it would devastate the border communities that are heavily reliant on cross border trade to survive. The risks are many. The costs are many. The uncertainty is infinite. It is not just the United Kingdom’s place in the European Union which is at stake on the 23rd June. It is also the future of the constituent nations that make up the UK itself. There is more than one union whose future composition is on the ballot paper in this referendum.

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