Brexit and Northern Ireland: a sectarian debate?

Posted: February 22, 2016 in Northern Ireland

So the date is set for the referendum that will decide whether Britain stays in the EU or leaves after 40 years a member: 23 June. Most of the political parties at Westminster are allowing their MPs to campaign on either side of the debate, whatever the official party policy might be. Boris Johnson announced to the world he was in favour of Brexit like he was Moses coming down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments on his tablet. Subtext to the Prime Minister, his party leader, who will vote to stay in: “It’s not about you, Dave. It’s just me”.

But here’s the thing. It’s looking like the debate in Northern Ireland will divide along party lines more than anywhere else in the UK. In other words, it’s going to be sectarian. We’re still waiting to see which way the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) goes but the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) have declared in favour of Brexit. The nationalist parties, Sinn Fein (SF) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) as well as the self-declared ‘cross-community’ Alliance Party (NIAP) want Britain to stay in.

Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Teresa Villiers, has come out loud and early in favour of Brexit, provoking Martin McGuinness, Deputy First Minister of NI, to recommend she consider her position, a call she dismissed as ‘ridiculous’. While it might be a futile call, ridiculous it is not because the DFM has a point. For in the context of the Good Friday Agreement, the British and Irish government are custodians of that Agreement, a legally-binding international treaty agreed in the interests of all people on the island of Ireland. If the Northern Ireland Secretary declares herself in favour of leaving the EU, an eventuality that would have profound economic implications for the North and South of Ireland – raising barriers once again instead of taking them down – then that is a position that will undermine the Agreement, not safeguard it. Her position is especially more precarious in light of the fact that her boss, Prime Minister David Cameron, is in favour of staying in. It’s all very well to argue that Villiers has as much right to declare her hand on the issue as any other government minister but that is to ignore the point that in relation to Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement, she is not just any other minister.

mcguinness and villiers

Don’t be ridiculous, Martin!

As for the likely sectarian complexion of the Brexit debate here in the North, it will be interesting to see how the vote pans out among the general electorate. Will the sectarian divide among the political parties here be reflected at the poll? Or will voters do something they don’t usually do at our endless elections here: vote on the recommendation of, deep breath here, ‘the other side’? As a socialist, I have many issues with the EU in terms of its institutional power and reach, its democratic deficit, its punitive treatment of Ireland and especially Greece over their respective bail-outs after the global financial crash of 2008, and its appalling handling of the refugees fleeing from war in Syria. But the prospect of life in Northern Ireland outside of the EU and at the sole mercy of Her Majesty’s Treasury for the economic subventions we can’t do without is on balance too scary for words. So I guess that means I will be voting on the same side as the Irish nationalist parties. Then again, if I voted in favour of leaving I would be on the same side as the Unionists, all of them nationalists of a British hue. Many of us voters here may well make a non-sectarian decision on 23 June but our vote will be informed by nationalism, whichever way we go.

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