Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Brexit and Irish Reunification

It is often said a week is a long time in politics. Try a month. The last month has been one of political turmoil and uncertainty. What does seem certain though, after the unexpected vote in the UK to leave the EU, is that the UK is headed for recession and is on the verge of break up. Having overwhelmingly voted to remain part of the EU, a second Scottish Independence Referendum looks set to be triggered as soon as England begins taking Scotland out of the EU against it's will.

Here in Ireland, Sinn Féin were quick out of the blocks demanding a Unity Referendum (#UnityRef replacing #BoderPoll on the twitter machine!) given that 56% in the North voted to remain. Nothing new or unexpected here.

Then we had the comments from Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin that he hopes the UK’s Brexit vote will eventually lead to a referendum on a united Ireland.

“The remain vote may show people the need to rethink current arrangements. I hope it moves us towards majority support for unification, and if it does we should trigger a reunification referendum.
“However, at this moment the only evidence we have is that the majority of people in Northern Ireland want to maintain open borders and a single market with this jurisdiction, and beyond that with the rest of Europe.”

All very positive and he does qualify his remarks with the need for "evidence" that a reunification referendum will have sufficient support to pass. I think he is correct. The only evidence we have is in the form of elections and opinion polls. Opinion polls (at least the non Unionist leaning ones that don't use the wording to steer to the "correct" result) have support for Unification in the North at c40%. The effect of Brexit may increase this by a few percentage points. We will have to wait and see as there has been no opinion pollspublished post Brexit.

The other form of evidence is election results. Due to Nationalist voter apathy, Nationalist strength has not been expressed in the latest cycle of elections. This has resulted in Nationalists being under represented in the Assembly and in Westminster. Perhaps Brexit may wake up apathetic Nationalists. If  Nationalist turnout can match Unionist turnout in the first post Brexit election, perhaps this result will provide the evidence required for a Unity Ref. Perhaps it won't and the waiting game of demographic change will go on.

The most significant development of the lot came from Taoiseach Enda Kenny. He has stated a possible border poll should be included as part of the Brexit negotiations.

"The discussions and negotiations that will take place over the next period should take into account the possibility, however far out that it might be, that the clause in the Good Friday Agreement might be triggered. In that if there is clear evidence of a majority of people wishing to leave the United Kingdom and join the Republic, that that should be catered for in the discussions that take place".

What the Fine Gael leader is saying here is that as part of the Brexit negotiations he will seek a guarantee that a future United Ireland will gain automatic membership of the European Union. Therefore when there is a Unity Referendum in the future, voters will know that a vote for a United Ireland will be a vote for a United Ireland within the EU. There would be no ambiguity as there was in the Scottish Independence Referendum.

The onus is now on the Fine Gael government, the minority government backed Fianna Faíl and main opposition party Sinn Féin to ensure that the promise of this guarantee is delivered.

The government should veto any Brexit outcome that does not include this guarantee. This is of vital importance because a future Unity Referendum for a United Ireland in the EU versus a UK of England and Wales outside of the EU is a political game changer.