On 23 June 2016 a small miracle happened in Northern Ireland. Despite polls placing the percentage of Northern Irish voters who were going to vote to leave the European Union at 13% in late 2015 and just 26% in the days before the referendum, 44% of Northern Irish voters turned out and voted leave.
To put that in context, that’s a far greater proportion than Scottish residents who did. And a larger proportion than Londoners. One Northern Ireland constituency, North Antrim, polled over 70% for leave and in several other constituencies it wasn’t close. Even metropolitan Belfast partly bucked the trend, with East Belfast narrowly voting leave and North Belfast coming within in whisker of doing the same.
The longer the campaign went on, the more people saw the logic of leaving the EU and, given how the polls saw leave gradually gaining ground, with another fortnight to campaign, there’s no reason to believe that Leave wouldn’t have gained the backing of over 50% of the Northern Irish electorate. Three people in every 100 voting the other way would have done it, after all.
Despite cold hard fact determining that the referendum really was a very close run thing, continuity remainers, have attempted to construct a mandate that doesn’t really exist. Firstly it relies on the assumption that Northern Ireland represented something more than a mere counting area in the referendum. It didn’t, yet this hasn’t stopped Sinn Fein, who’ve never accepted the state exists, to bizarrely claim to speak for ‘the North’. Secondly, the devolved institutions, as were and perhaps will never be again, have zero say on constitutional issues. They’re a reserved matter and the courts agreed.
While this pretty persistent whinging has no doubt been for political gain – Sinn Fein were against every single European treaty – the assumption of remainers that they speak for the whole of Northern Ireland has been left largely unchallenged by the media. And now, with the advent of a General Election, they are now attempting to use it to draw out support for remaining in the EU or the impossible ‘special status’.
Our politicians are notoriously myopic and have grown comfortable existing in a little tiny corner of the world where the EU, like some sort of benevolent overlord, showered money and attention upon them. Any change, even for the better, is just too much for them to bear. This mindset was probably best demonstrated by the constituency result in Foyle. With the importance of EU funding in that part of the world impressed upon them, three in four voters opted to remain. Yet very few voters questioned whether Londonderry’s general economic malaise, frequently commented upon by its residents, was in any part due to the EU.
Having initially clung on to the belief, perhaps encouraged by Europe’s frequently ignored referenda, that Brexit would never happen, the latest delusion manifested itself in an attempt at forming an Anti-Brexit pact, aimed at beating leave-supporting MPs in several constituencies. Even if it had of been successful, the idea that it would have had any bearing is as equally ungrounded in reality as the propositions underpinning ‘continuity remainers’. The new reality and one to which these people must adjust is one that opens up Northern Ireland to the world, and where the best intentions will not be facilitated by the EU, but only ever frustrated by it.
The best example of this is the Irish border. This issue has been largely seized upon by Sinn Fein, who have played on border community folk memory to drum up fear of a time when isolated roads were closed off and security checkpoints were placed on both sides to deter smuggling and terrorist-related activity. Evoking images the past, as is often the case in this part of the world, may create a powerful narrative but the 21st century reality is much different.
Borders fulfil several roles, namely the control of trade, security and the movement of people. At present the border is free-flow and you would barely know it was there. But with the right North-South deal, similar to that Norway and Sweden enjoy, there is no reason why it would need to change. While Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson obviously took great delight in telling the Prime Minister to “stick a hard border where the sun doesn’t shine”, it’s really not Theresa May she needs to be whinging to. It’s the EU. Free movement between the two nations will not be curtailed – the Common Travel Area agreement is a rolling ministerial one so has not, and can not, be supplanted by EU law. However customs can only be managed in one of two ways. A free trade agreement, such as had existed prior to 1973, with the Irish Republic which would render the need for controls meaningless. However this can only come in through the EU. A single integrated system managed by the UK and Irish Republic however is a different matter. Automatic number-plate recognition and a single system for applying necessary, and hopefully avoidable, tariffs, can ensure that traffic and people continue to cross the border unabated. All this is a far cry from the images haunting the fevered dreams of Republican propagandists.
But even if the above wasn’t the case and Northern Ireland wasn’t able to trade with the Republic outside of WTO rules, the problem wouldn’t be fatal. If you listened to our media you would believe that Northern Ireland has developed an economy which is totally in sync with that of the Irish Republic. And why wouldn’t it be? The EU has, after all, spent a clean fortune attempting to bolster North-South trade through various infrastructure projects. But the figures don’t bear that assumption out. The latest year for which figures are available, 2014, reveals that only 7.8% of our trade turnover involves products that go south, while 8.3% is accounted for by the rest of the of the EU. By contrast 45% of our trade is tied up with Great Britain and 17.1% – more than involves the Irish Republic and the rest of the EU combined, is with the rest of the world.
In short, Northern Ireland’s economic reality is bound up with the rest of the UK and the rest of the world. You could theoretically put a huge wall along the border to completely cut off movement and trade and it wouldn’t be anywhere near as damaging as the United Ireland tragically mooted by some as the alternative.
After Brexit, Northern Ireland will benefit from better access to the global markets it quite clearly excels in, despite having to operate within the narrow confines of trade deals agreed by 27 member states. Currently, Northern Irish businesses must operate in a system that ensures our prospects are consistently curtailed by trade deals agreed by powers so remote as to be rendered useless to us. Bringing the needs of Londonderry and Ballymena closer to the negotiating table will be hugely positive. Right now, they’re an afterthought.
Our curtailed opportunities are one of several reasons that Northern Ireland is heavily reliant on its public sector to the extent that its economy is completely out of kilter with anything that a serious economist would recognise as being in any way normal. The public sector’s widely acknowledged drain on competitiveness completes a vicious circle that we’ve just been handed an opportunity to break out of.
It beggars belief that the debate about Brexit has been wholly dominated by those who backed the status quo because the potential for Northern Ireland outside the EU is bright. But unless Brexiteers start to shout about the opportunities during this General Election campaign then Northern Ireland will be sold short once again.
Neil Wilson is CfL Campaigns Director. Follow Neil on Twitter: @libertyneil