Brexit and Northern Ireland

8 Apr 2016 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 8 Apr 2016

Keep the blue flag flying here?

The European referendum campaign has got off to an entertaining start, but rarely has any debate shed such little light on the real issues. 

Most are none the wiser, not least because it has degenerated into a battle for the leadership of the Conservative Party, with one side raising fears that opponents say they cannot substantiate, and the other giving reassurances they are not in a position to keep.

And there has been comparatively little analysis of the implications for Northern Ireland of leaving, which after all would be the only part of the UK with a land border with another state.

Here we focus on two of the most important issues and raise some questions for debate.

The first pertains to sovereignty.

The power base for the Leave campaign is England, and at the heart of the advocates of Brexit is the question of national self-determination. They argue that the sovereignty of the Westminster parliament has been diminished by European institutions and that British withdrawal would at once save the country money and re-establish the primacy of parliament. It would also permit tighter controls on immigration.

However both the Welsh and Scottish governments are in favour of staying in the EU and opinion polls suggest that they have the support of their electorates. An exit would therefore entail Wales and Scotland leaving the EU against the wishes of their people and almost inevitably trigger pressure for a second referendum on Scottish independence and rejuvenate the nationalist movement in Wales.

One curious aspect of all this is that in relation to the European Union nationalists tend to be unionists and vice versa. This can be disorientating.

In Northern Ireland the situation is not so clear-cut. There is a significant majority in favour of remaining, but whilst around 90% of nationalists desire this outcome, unionist voters are split with the greater number favouring Brexit.

The DUP has come out firmly on the Leave side, but it is still a little early to assess the impact of this on voting intentions. Interestingly the party does not mention its stance on the referendum in its Assembly Election manifesto.

The Secretary of State Theresa Villiers is a prominent Brexit campaigner. She has laid out her case on her website which is called “Working for Chipping Barnet” it can be accessed here Unsurprisingly there is no reference to the impact on Northern Ireland as this is unlikely to be of any interest to the good citizens of her constituency.

Whilst we can conclude that Brexit would revive the Scottish independence issue and raise questions about the Union within GB, the implications of “hardening” the border with the Republic and on nationalist thinking here are not so clear. Would it intensify the debate about Irish unity, or even cause political instability?

The Good Friday Agreement was predicated on both the Republic and the UK being members of the EU, would this matter, in practical terms, if the UK were to leave?

Beyond the obvious scare-mongering which Villiers herself has rightly challenged, there are real questions about the impact on the UK of its leaving if clear majorities in three of the four jurisdictions voted to stay but were forced out because of the greater number of voters in England and also the impact within Ireland on the border.

Secondly there is the matter of EU funding. There are three key funding streams at present. There are two structural funds: the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and the European Social Fund (ESF). The ERDF focuses on improving sustainable economic growth and is designed to promote research and innovation, encourage SME competitiveness and support the shift to a low-carbon economy. The ESF is concerned with promoting social inclusion and combatting unemployment as well as investing in education, skills and life-long learning. These two funds will contribute €460 million to our economy between 2014 and 2020 of which €180 million is contributed by the British government There is also the Peace Fund which operates on a cross border basis and will provide €270 million between 2014 and 2020.

Whether we stay or leave there are interesting questions to be answered. For the remain camp there needs to be clear answers to the following:

How much benefit have we received from these projects, what jobs have been created, life chances enhanced, and how has the peace process been furthered? And at what point will they end in any event?

And for those who wish to leave we need to know how these funding streams will be replaced and in the case of the peace funds, whether a cross border arrangement with the Irish government would be possible.

The first set of questions are easier to answer than the second, because they are matters of fact and readily available.  

Leave campaigners argue that because Britain puts more into the EU than takes out that the British government will pick up the tab and will have more to invest in the UK.

But here they are giving an assurance that is not in their gift. This is a referendum and not an election so if they win we’ll be out of Europe but they will not be in government so will not be in a position to deliver on any promises made.

We may end up with a different prime minister but the same party will be in power with its austerity agenda and pursuit of cuts. Isn’t it just as likely that the Treasury will pocket any proceeds to reduce the national debt? Even if not, what assurances can be given about specific funding streams before the vote takes place?

Further to that there is increasing discontent in England about the operation of the Barnett Formula and a resentment that Northern Ireland appears to do rather well out of public funding as it is.

So scaremongering aside the leave campaigners have a considerable disadvantage in such policy debates. We know what will happen if we retain the status quo but we don’t know what will happen if we leave. All we do know is that the present government is committed to reducing public spending and that the Brexit power base is England.

This week NICVA started to put some shape to this debate and to the impacts staying or leaving will have on the voluntary sector. We’ll be following this closely at Scope. 

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