Sam McBride: Central plank of Irish foreign policy imperilled by Brexit

It is an indication of Northern Ireland voters' and politicians' changing priorities that the constitutional impact on the island of Ireland of next Thursday's plebiscite has been largely overlooked thus far in the debate.

Saturday, 18th June 2016, 10:12 am
Updated Thursday, 25th August 2016, 8:04 pm
Garret FitzGerald was a crucial voice in shaping the Republic's pro-EU stance

The key debates here – as elsewhere in the UK – have been those which involve the economy, sovereignty and immigration. Insofar as the ideological implications for unionism and nationalism have at all been encountered, it has largely been by inference rather than by direct discussion.

Even when the campaign has focussed on the massive issue of the border, it has almost exclusively been about the practical implications of delays, customs posts and the likely impact on trade.

That might be one reason why the Millward Brown Ulster poll reported by yesterday’s News Letter (which shows significant momentum towards Leave) suggests a turnout in Thursday’s poll of just over 60 per cent.

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That would be a remarkably low level of engagement for what is probably, because of its implications for the border, the closest that we will ever come to a border poll without actually having a referendum on a united Ireland.

If that figure is at all accurate, either a massive swathe of the public no longer cares enough about the border to vote in a referendum which will directly impact on it, or the electorate simply does not see this poll through that orange and green prism.

There are massive constitutional implications of next week’s vote, even if it is far from clear how they will unfold.

Although a Brexit would raise questions about the future of the UK – as my colleague Ben Lowry explores in his column today – and that fear was crucial to persuading UUP leader Mike Nesbitt to endorse a Remain vote, the most dramatic immediate political tremor will be felt in Dublin.

A British exit from the EU would demolish a central plank of the Republic’s foreign policy towards Northern Ireland and would also push northern nationalism towards a strategic rethink.

One of the key reasons behind John Hume’s enthusiasm for the European project was that – outside of the traditional disputes of the time about north-south co-operation – it would integrate both parts of the island in innumerable areas.

That view was shared by influential figures in Dublin (who also saw the attraction of being the largest net beneficiary of European funds if the Republic was to join, as it did in 1973).

South of the border, Garret FitzGerald, a driving pro-European force in Irish politics from the 1970s until his death five years ago, probably articulated it most clearly and farsightedly.

From a time when the current Sinn Fein leadership was advocating killing as the best route to a united Ireland, Dr FitzGerald’s vision of the UK and Ireland as equal partners at the EU table and of the border gradually dissolving to a point where it was almost invisible has become accepted across almost the entire nationalist spectrum to the point where Gerry Adams is today campaigning to keep Britain in the EU.

The Belfast Agreement brought a layer of north-south bodies to which some unionists still object. But none of those largely toothless bodies have harmonised the two parts of the island to the same extent as the EU, which has removed customs posts, funded cross-border road and rail links and through increased immigration changed society on both sides of the low-key border.

Some informed observers believe that a UK exit from the EU would push Dublin towards also leaving the EU within a relatively short timeframe.

That would seem extraordinary, given how enthusiastic the Republic has long been about the European project.

And yet in successive referenda the people of the Republic have shown themselves to be far less enthusiastic than their political leaders about the EU.

Although Mr Kenny’s government has contingency plans for a Leave vote, Dublin’s official position is to categorically state that if the UK quits the EU, it will remain.

But, facing the probability of the Republic soon becoming a net contributor to EU funds, the residual anti-EU feeling from the recent bailout terms and with Enda Kenny leading a weak minority government, Ireland will not be immune from the sort of public sentiment which forced David Cameron to hold this referendum.

At present there is no major political party in the Republic advocating such a policy.

Sinn Fein’s position is that if the UK votes to leave, then there should be a border poll. Although that request is unlikely to be granted by any British Government in the immediate future, if Sinn Fein seriously presses for it, that could destablise Stormont.

But if the UK quits the EU, it is also possible that a ruthlessly pragmatic Sinn Fein could abandon its current position and revert to its former policy of advocating the traditional Irish nationalist position: that all sovereignty should reside on the island of Ireland.

See Ben Lowry, page 17