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Brexit in Northern Ireland: Through the looking glass where British Unionists want ‘Brits out’ and Nationalists want ‘Brits in’

Northern Ireland voted to Remain in the EU, and now, even Unionists are applying for Irish passports...

A Republican mural in Belfast.

As a remain supporter, though like many in the Green Party not uncritical of the EU (the TTIP of the iceberg being its neoliberalism and support for corporate-led globalisation), this week has gone from cautious optimism that the UK would vote remain, coupled with the joy of both NI and the Republic of Ireland teams making it to last 16 of the European football championship, to the grim reality of the ‘day after’. Although NI voted to stay in (as did Scotland), the UK as whole voted to leave, leaving many to comment that this was not the UK but England (and to a lesser extent Wales) voting to leave the EU. 

Some of the immediate reactions here have ranged from the predictable to the personal. In the former case, we see the DUP’s leader and First Minister, Arlene Foster, the only main party to back Brexit, refusing to ‘do a Cameron’ and resign since a majority of NI backed remain. In the latter I would include not just the strained personal-political relations between individuals in both camps – in my own case trade union and left wing activists here in NI who supported Lexit – relations that should be repaired quickly for the fight against the Tory right ahead. I would also include the fact that in my hometown of Holywood, a mixed but predominately Protestant-Unionist area just outside Belfast, the local post office this morning (the day after the vote) handed out over 200 Irish passport applications. This would tally with the Dublin passport office hiring hundreds of extra staff in anticipation of this increase in inquires about and applications for Irish passports. According to the Irish Times:

“The Irish Passport Twitter account @PassportIRL has seen surge of inquiries about acquiring an Irish passport in the wake of the Brexit referendum result. A Google Trends analysis also showed a spike of interest in Irish passports on the search engine from 4am on Friday”.

I was also contacted via email this morning by a constituent who said that the “the decision of the UK to leave the EU will force me to become a non-EU citizen against my will which I find to be unacceptable. I am therefore applying for an Irish passport” (quoted with permission). This reaction of people, who had no mind to apply for Irish passports and therefore citizenship, is an indication of the shock and calculations people are making in the wake of Brexit.  While people born in NI can, as a result of the Belfast 1998 Agreement, claim Irish, British or both nationalities, the indications are the rush now is largely from those who would consider themselves ‘British’ or ‘Northern Irish’. And so we have another odd result of the campaign that joins the strange bedfellows that were thrown together on both sides of the campaign. On the leave side we had the right wing of the Tory party and UKIP, joined by some on the left, including the Communist Party and Socialist Party and some trades unionists.  Here is the Communist Party of Ireland’s statement released today:

The Communist Party of Ireland expresses its solidarity with and welcomes the decision of the British electorate, with working people having played a decisive factor to vote to leave the European Union. The decision of the people is a victory over Project Fear, unleashed by big business, global banks and financial institutions, with the EU and the ruling elite throughout the EU, including the Irish government, playing back-up. We congratulate those in the north-east of Ireland who had the opportunity to vote in the referendum and voted to leave.

And yet that solidarity also extended to being on the same side as racists and xenophobes – a considerable amount of whom were working class. Strange times indeed…

On the Remain side were other factions of the Tory party led by Cameron joined by Corbyn’s Labour party – with his qualified support for In – the SNP, Greens – not all, Sinn Fein and other sections of the left. In Northern Ireland because of our ‘unique’ post-conflict power-sharing arrangements, the two party NI executive was split, with the DUP supporting leave (along with the left-wing People Before Profit and Tradition Unionist Voice), while and Sinn Fein ‘crossed the floor’ as it were to join the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the Greens in supporting remain. 

And to these strange alliances we now have in Northern Ireland the phenomenon where ‘British unionists’ are voting with their feet to become Irish (and therefore EU) citizens. While this of course should not be viewed as a prelude to unionists supporting a united Ireland, it is better perhaps viewed as a sort of individual level ‘reverse Greenland’ as Adam Ramsay has put it.

This ‘reverse Greenland’ allows people in NI to remain part of the EU (by becoming also Irish citizens) while also being citizens of the (dis)United Kingdom. 

In this way, the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which allowed all those living in Northern Ireland dual citizenship, has ironically become a great-unintended benefit for non-Brexit unionists. Ironic in that in the 1998 referendum considerably less Unionists (around 60%) supported it than Nationalists (over 90%). Strange times indeed…  

Whether of course a ‘reverse Greenland’ is possible for NI as a whole (which would enable NI to continue to enjoy the support of the EU through the millions of euros of peace funding or Erasmus student exchange or university access to bid for EU research funding) is of course a huge issue, not least in terms of whether unionists and nationalists would support it, it is one post-Brexit strategy definitely worth considering. Not least since there have been concerns about the destabilising impact of a vote to leave – now made a reality not necessarily because of the removal of EU peace money, but by Sinn Fein’s immediate reaction in calling for a border poll, which inevitably leads to a hardening of positions. 

 At this point of course it is far too early to tell what will be the long-term impacts of the decision to leave the EU. But here as I write in Holywood, Northern Ireland, I’m looking forward to the football this weekend. While Northern Ireland is out of the European Union, at least its football team is still in the Euros. And if that team loses we have the option of another team from the other part of the island to support.     

About the author

John Barry is a Reader at Queens University Belfast, where he is Director of the Centre for Sustainability and Environmental Research. He co-edits the Environmental Politics journal.

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