Brexit and Irish nationalism

Only two years after the narrow defeat of Scottish independence in the last major referendum in Britain, nobody should be surprised that the vote for Brexit has opened up new questions about the territorial integrity of the UK.

The Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has said she will begin preparing legislation for a second independence referendum. Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness has called for a border poll on Irish unity. However, the two calls have received very different responses from the British Government. The Scottish Secretary David Mundell has said that a referendum will happen if the Scottish people want it, while the Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers has rejected the call for a border poll outright.

Indeed, the call for a border poll hasn't even met with universal enthusiasm from Irish nationalists. In the Irish News, commentator Brian Feeney suggested it would be illegal at the present time:

Look, as you’ve read here repeatedly the Northern Ireland Act 1998 empowers a secretary of state alone to call a referendum only if it appears likely a majority will vote for a united Ireland. Currently that means if a proconsul called a referendum the decision would be overturned in court. Get real.

If anything the evidence of recent elections in Northern Ireland is that nationalism is becalmed because voters are disillusioned with tokenistic gestures towards Irish unity and an absence of policy delivery. It may be that the wheel of fortune is now turning, but exploiting such opportunities through short-term populism rather than long-term planning has its dangers, as Boris Johnson is currently finding out. Dealing with the results of romantic English nationalism may require a strong dose of hardheaded Celtic pragmatism.

Slugger O'Toole's David McCann has some clear ideas about what the nationalist response to Brexit should involve:

We have real debates coming up as a community such as when will Article 50 be activated? What role will the Executive have in these negotiations? How will our interests be protected and respected? Most importantly, how will our relationship with the South change after the UK leaves the European Union?

All of these will take time to get through and answers will be needed before any border poll happens.

Likewise his Slugger colleague Chris Donnelly is also arguing for a focus on an all-Ireland plan to deal with the fallout from Brexit rather than an early referendum.

For now, the priority for Sinn Féin and the SDLP, as well as the Irish government, should be to ensure that the new post-Brexit border remains as invisible as it is today, with all that entails for trade and movement between both parts of Ireland, as well as negotiating for strengthened formal relationships between the Executive and Irish Government.

Martin McGuinness should be using his status- if not formally his office- to demand an agreed strategy with the Irish government (with or without Arlene’s approval) to protect Irish interests, whilst continuing to make the case as to why EU membership was and remains the best option for the Irish people, north and south.

There were signs that McGuinness was moving in this direction in a BBC interview today. While not resiling from Sinn Féin's call for a border poll, he emphasised that 'in the immediate future the focus needs to be on the whole issue of how we can maintain our relationship with Europe which has been so beneficial to us over the course of the last number of decades,' adding that 'there needs to be special arrangements which take account of the democratically expressed wishes of the people of the north of Ireland and Scotland.'

While Scotland may appear to have an advantage in being closer to, and better prepared for constitutional change, it is not yet clear that the polls are strong enough for Sturgeon to make the big call for a second referendum. In the meantime, Scotland and Northern Ireland are both in the market for some kind of variable geometry settlement, perhaps on the lines of the 'reverse Greenland' solution canvassed by OpenDemocracy's Adam Ramsay. Indeed some centrist figures in Northern Ireland politics have already expressed interest in similar ideas, and Northern Ireland may actually have an advantage over Scotland in pursuing them, thanks to its relationship with a continuing EU member state in the south.

It would be unwise to assume that people applying for Irish passports in Carrickfergus or voting for Remain in Bangor are signalling a deeper change in constitutional attitudes, but there may be a new openness to extending existing all-island relationships to contain the fallout from Brexit and preserve Northern Ireland's access to the EU. Brexit poses new problems for the north-south relationship, but it may also make its practical value more apparent, on both sides of the border. 



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