Northern Ireland and Brexit: Now is not the time for talk of Irish unity

Mary C. Murphy, University College Cork, urges caution in linking Northern Ireland support for remaining in the EU with growing support for a united Ireland.

In 1998, the Northern Ireland electorate voted in a historic referendum to support the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. The Agreement was reached following multi-party talks and was an integral part of the Northern Ireland peace process. Turnout for the referendum was 81%. Of those who voted, 71% voted in support of the Agreement.

For the 1998 referendum, Northern Ireland was treated as a single constituency. This meant that there were no official figures detailing the community breakdown of the vote. Nevertheless, analysts suggest that the size of the yes vote indicates majority support for the Agreement across both communities.

Nationalists were overwhelmingly supportive of the Agreement during the referendum campaign and it is estimated that upwards of 95% voted yes.  Unionists were less wholehearted in their support. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) campaigned for a no vote. However, such is the size of the overall yes vote, it is estimated that between 51% and 53% of unionists opted to support the Agreement.

These figures are important. Majority support from both communities was deemed vital in that it would strengthen the legitimacy of the vote and so better facilitate the implementation of the Agreement. It should be noted that even with majority support, the implementation of the Agreement encountered many difficulties, setbacks, and even the sporadic suspension of political institutions.

It is useful to compare the results of the 1998 Agreement referendum with the results of the recent UK referendum on EU membership. Unlike in 1998, the referendum votes cast in Northern Ireland were counted by constituency and this means that it is possible to identify which constituencies voted to Remain or to Leave.

In line with expectations and the polls, and on a turnout of 63%, 56% of Northern Ireland voters supported the Remain position. The margin of the winning vote is considerably less than it was in 1998. So what do we know about the communal breakdown of this vote? 

Pre-referendum polls in Northern Ireland hinted at voter intentions to a communal divide in terms of voting intentions. Nationalist voters appeared to heed the cues from the two nationalist political parties, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and Sinn Féin, and were overwhelmingly in favour of the UK remaining in the EU. In contrast, unionist voters received mixed signals. The largest political party in Northern Ireland, the DUP, supported the Leave campaign while their smaller counterpart, the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) was officially in favour of continued membership, although not all UUP members were on message. Opinion polls in the run-up to the vote suggested that a majority of Unionists intended to support Leave.

The referendum result demonstrates that support for Remain was strongest in Belfast and in border constituencies, while much of the eastern part of Northern Ireland supported the Leave position. Although the geography of the vote suggests some evidence of a communal divide in how Northern Ireland voters voted, it is not clear-cut. In fact, the vote does not follow strict communal lines and nor does it point to a clear division between the two communities. Unionists, in particular, did not constitute a homogenous voting bloc. According to a Lucidtalk exit poll, 33% of unionists voted Remain while support among nationalists was substantially higher. This pattern is further evident in terms of the constituency breakdown of the vote.

All seven Northern Ireland constituencies with a nationalist MP and the one constituency represented by an Independent MP voted Remain. Three of the ten Northern Ireland constituencies with a Unionist MP voted Remain. Of the seven which supported Leave, only one recorded a vote to Leave greater than 55% (see table 1).

Table 1

In the event, unionist support was decisive in producing the overall Northern Ireland vote to Remain, and especially so, given that turnout was down in nationalist constituencies, averaging 60.4% compared with 63.8% in unionist constituencies. The most striking example of low nationalist turnout is the Sinn Féin stronghold of West Belfast where less than 50% of voters cast a vote. This figure is 8% down on the turnout figure for the Northern Ireland Assembly elections a few weeks earlier. It appears that some nationalist voters may have strategically absented themselves from the voting booths in an attempt to contribute to a Leave vote – a result which would provide a basis for calls for a border poll (or referendum on a united Ireland).

Such a voter strategy and the subsequent Sinn Féin call for a border poll which has followed the referendum vote, is predicated on the view that the result has altered the basis for Northern Ireland’s membership of the UK as set out in the 1998 Agreement. This is especially so in terms of the impact of an EU exit on cross-border (North-South) and cross-national (East-West) relationships which are embedded in the overall peace settlement for Northern Ireland.

The 1998 Agreement includes a number of references to the European context and these apply to North-South and East-West institutions. Additionally, and perhaps more damaging, is the effect of the possible re-imposition of a hard international border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This border has been substantially softened as a consequence of EU membership and the 1998 Agreement is premised on the permanency of this arrangement.

It is clear, therefore, that the referendum result entails change for Northern Ireland’s political institutions and for the governance of the region. However, the suggestion that this altered environment is synonymous with majority support for a united Ireland is disingenuous. It presupposes that, in the aftermath of the referendum, those unionists who voted to Remain are also likely to vote to leave the UK.  It also assumes that nationalists will opt for a united Ireland on the back of an overall UK Leave vote (and that voters south of the border will do likewise). Recent opinion polls on Irish unity do not demonstrate anything close to majority support for a united Ireland among either unionists or nationalists.

Clearly, voters may adjust their views in the aftermath of this referendum and for nationalists in particular, this vote may increase their support for a united Ireland. However, any modification in Unionist voter preferences vis-à-vis Irish unity following the EU referendum is unlikely to develop quickly, and maybe not even at all. Loyalty to Britain and to the UK state means that unionists will be better able to accept and respect the national UK vote to Leave.

There is scope for a serious and mature discussion about Northern Ireland’s majority democratic choice to Remain in the EU. Already, the Prime Ministers of Ireland and the UK are engaged in discussions about the future of the Common Travel Area (CTA) and the maintenance of a soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There is also some limited support among EU leaders for special recognition for Northern Ireland during the exit negotiation process. The Irish government are likely to push hard for such a provision.

In the years following the UK’s exit from the EU, the time may be ripe for a deeper assessment of Northern Ireland’s constitutional status. However, in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, protecting and promoting Northern Ireland’s interests is best accomplished by creatively focusing on what is acceptable to the broadest spectrum of public and political opinion in Northern Ireland (and in the Republic of Ireland).

Talk of a border poll is only serving to fuel greater insecurity, volatility and division. Agitating for more than what is practically possible, achievable and desirable at this time, risks undermining years of (relative) political stability and improved community relations in Northern Ireland.

In 1998, majority support for constitutional change was evident across both communities in Northern Ireland. The same level of consensus does not exist in 2016. As Northern Ireland faces a period of considerable instability and uncertainty, its political leaders would do well to heed their earlier experience of referendums and to remain sensitive to the preferences of both communities.

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Twitter: @MaryCMurphy
Web:    http://publish.ucc.ie/researchprofiles/B007/marycmurphy

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Mary C. Murphy's picture
Guest post by Mary C. Murphy
University College Cork
27th July 2016
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