Ben Lowry: Despite what supporters of Brexit say, it might just blow the UK apart

Back in February I wrote a piece about how I was moving from being a supporter of Brexit, a conclusion that I had reached years ago, to an unenthusiastic backer of Remain.

By The Newsroom
Saturday, 18th June 2016, 4:55 pm
Updated Thursday, 25th August 2016, 8:25 pm

My final position then was undecided, but in the subsequent four months my view has barely moved, so on Thursday I will vote Remain.

Since writing that piece, I have interviewed for this newspaper many people who have come to Northern Ireland as part of the campaign.

Among the Remain leaders that I spoke to are the Tories David Cameron, George Osborne, David Lidington (Europe minister) and Labour’s Lord Mandelson and Alan Johnson. I was also in Londonderry to hear John Major and Tony Blair

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Among the Leave campaign leaders that I interviewed are Boris Johnson, Theresa Villiers, Daniel Hannan and Nigel Farage.

Over the last year I have sounded out the views of NI politicians ranging from Lord Empey to Ian Paisley Junior, from Nigel Dodds to Jim Nicholson. One of the first MPs with whom I discussed the EU was Kate Hoey last year in London.

In each case I have asked about the impact of Brexit on the border and the Union.

Needless to say, supporters of Brexit think the border and the position of (UK-wide) unionists will be fine post a UK withdrawal. The supporters of Remain expect problems in both respects.

I doubt they are all, on both sides, as confident privately about those predictions as they seem publicly.

My own vote on Thursday will be determined above all (but not solely) by those two issues, because I think Brexit might – I would put it no more strongly than might – blow the UK to smithereens.

Or it might, as the eurosceptics say, have next to no impact on the border and Union. We do not know, but given that we do not it becomes an argument in favour of a status quo that mostly works in those regards.

Before I elaborate on those two points, a few observations on the campaign. The most impressive person I spoke to (of an impressive bunch) was the passionate Brexiteer Dan Hannan MEP.

The most charming protagonist was Stanley Johnson, father of Boris, who flew into Belfast to make the environmental case for staying in the EU. With panache, he expressed unequivocal pride in – and loyalty to – his son for ramping up the debate, before emphatically restating his own support for Remain.

The best article that I have read, of scores, was the 4,000 word essay in favour of Remain by Ferdinand Mount.

In summary, overall arguments for Remain and Leave strike me as compelling.

Those of us who are not economists can only listen to those who are and then guess. It is clear that there will be prolonged uncertainty post Brexit but I respect most the supporters of Leave who would support it even if our finances declined.

What does a decade of recession or slower growth matter in comparison to regaining sovereignty when considered over decades or centuries? The question then becomes to what extent can we meaningfully regain our sovereignty in a globalised world in which smaller nations often have to work together in pools.

It also seems clear that the UK’s much-maligned subsidy to Europe is negligible in terms of the Treasury budget. As has been recited, we get back about half the £350m a week we send to the EU. There will in any event be a cost for free trade access.

It is clear there will be massive immigration pressure on the UK regardless of the outcome. But these are topics, beyond the scope of this article. It is the border and unionism I want do focus on.

Unionists in NI have a poor track record of strategic thinking.

The failure of Stormont to embrace reform in the 1960s is one of the reasons it was prorogued. The failure to embrace power sharing in 1974 or come up with serious alternatives in the decade after it contributed to the imposition of the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement.

And the failure to come up with serious ideas in the decade after that led to the political representatives of the IRA in power in 1998 (and when another decade had elaped after that, SF got to the height of power).

Unionist short-sightedness or even obduracy has typically led to a worse outcome for unionism. So I think some unionists are wrong to be blasé about the risks in Scotland going after Brexit.

They say that the plunging oil price will contain nationalism but passionate nationalism cannot be easily contained – look how the Republic withstood decades of poverty post Partition. That poverty never led to doubt among the bulk of Irish people that independence was the right course to have taken (a course that had negligible support pre 1916).

And what if Brexit sparks a wave of Irish nationalism within NI?

Decades of movement towards widespread nationalist acceptance of the entity of NI could unravel. This might not happen but we must at least go to the polls mindful of the risk of it.

As to the border, it is clear no-one knows what will happen to it either. There will likely be a fudge to maintain the essence of the Common Travel Area (CTA), subject to the blessing of the EU, but the customs factor means checks cannot be ruled out.

I also think free movement within the EU will give cover for a post-Brexit UK government to introduce passport controls across the Irish Sea. That would not be the end of the world, but it would be the end of our right to passport-free travel within the UK, an elementary plank of our Britishness.

Passport-free travel within the CTA for London to Dublin movements (but not vice versa) was quietly shelved some years ago.

The question of the Union and the border touches on a scenario outside Europe that I think might work one day – the entirety of the British Isles comes out, as a loosely federated five-part unit.

The recent Easter Rising centenary in Dublin showed the Republic is far from rejoining the UK. Scotland is still in the departure lounge.

But Ireland is warmer now about Britain than it has been for a century and I wonder if it could one day move closer to an Australian/Canadian style of de facto independence.

It makes sense for these two islands of English speakers, with their close ties to each other and to the new world and their similar world views, to have the same stance re Europe and the world.

If an entity could survive out of the EU, then that one of almost 70 million people might be it. But that is not on the cards now.

Too many other things are in the air. We need first to see what will become of the EU and eurozone.

Now is not the time to storm out.

Ben Lowry (@BenLowry2) is News Letter deputy editor