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Brexit: After such an acrimonious referendum, we're left to wonder, and worry, what future holds

Whether it's Foster and McGuinness, England and Scotland, or Northern Ireland and the Republic, number of fault lines exposed by rancorous EU vote is of great concern

By Ed Curran

Published 25/06/2016

HM Customs conduct searches at the border between Killen and Carrickarnon in 1956
HM Customs conduct searches at the border between Killen and Carrickarnon in 1956
A trader in Germany is aghast at the falling stocks
Supporters of the Remain campaign are despondent after the result of the referendum on the EU goes against them
Supporters of the Remain campaign are despondent after the result of the referendum on the EU goes against them
Supporters of the Remain campaign are despondent after the result of the referendum on the EU goes against them
Martin McGuinness
David Cameron
Arlene Foster
Theresa Villiers

How united in 2016 is the United Kingdom? That is just one of the many questions we are left to grapple with in Northern Ireland as we reflect this weekend on a truly momentous referendum vote.

United or disunited? The omens are not good for a United Kingdom split by such a slim margin as 51.9% to 48.1%.

A United Kingdom where the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland and of the capital city London have elected to go one way and the people of the rest of England and Wales have chosen to go another.

A United Kingdom in which the two major parties are now awash in recrimination and division, where the Prime Minister is a goner, battle-lines are being drawn up and new untested figures are waiting in the wings to wrest political controls from discredited leaderships.

Where it will all end not even Solomon himself could predict. One word flashes on the big screen across every corner of these islands and of Europe as well - uncertainty.

Even though there was always the possibility of it happening, the overnight demise of David Cameron and his Remain campaign has come as a profound shock. For all the parade of constitutional, political and economic experts across our television screens in the past 24 hours, we are little wiser as to where our futures will be, who will be in charge, at what cost to each and every one of us, and at what price to this small island of Ireland. The smiles of delight on the faces of the Outers give way to the stark reality that they are now at the helm of Westminster, and cannot escape responsibility for charting a course through totally uncharted waters. Where will they take us? Beyond the platitudes of putting the Great back into Great Britain etc etc, do they really know themselves and have they the ability which David Cameron didn't, to deliver a new dawn?

Only time will tell if the subsidies the farmers of Northern Ireland enjoy now will be the same or bettered in a new independent state, unfettered by Brussels, or if those many community groups who benefit from European peace funding will have it in future.

Only time will tell if employment and the economy here will prosper or retract. Can it really be the case that the dire pre-referendum warnings of our captains of industry will be proven to have no substance?

Only time will tell if the Secretary of State Theresa Villiers was right about a Leave vote having little impact on the border, or whether the barriers of the past will need re-erected from Down to Donegal.

And most crucially of all, only time will tell if the referendum result will reopen the constitutional debate and as a consequence old wounds on this island and within Northern Ireland. The outcome of the referendum is a test for the joint leadership of Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness. The First Minister dismissed as "scandalous" the intervention of former Prime Ministers John Major and Tony Blair who argued that an out vote might imperil the peace process.

Can any of us now be absolutely certain that it will not, as we look across the short stretch of sea dividing us from Scotland and hear the drums starting to beat again for independence?

And what of our neighbours in the Republic now left stranded between political allegiance to Brussels and economic dependency on UK trade.

Northern Ireland finds itself in an awkward spot, a significant majority in favour of staying in Europe yet, whether we like it or not, having to toe the line in the other direction.

Unlike Scotland's First Minister, Arlene Foster did not command majority support for her view on the referendum. Nicola Sturgeon vowed yesterday to reflect the strong Remain view of her country and to use that vote to press for another referendum on independence.

The respective reactions of Mrs Foster and the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to the Leave vote shows once again the fragility of consensus politics here.

"We are now entering a new era of an even stronger UK," proclaimed Mrs Foster, while Mr McGuinness said: "Dragging us out of Europe will be to the detriment of all our citizens and will be bad for business, trade, investment and the wider society."

They can't both be right. It is also hard to see how the First Minister can reconcile her view of a stronger UK in the light of the unsettled mood in Scotland.

As the political wheeling and dealing takes place between London and Brussels in the next two years, uncertainty will reign. Until the picture is clearer, who will be prepared to put down their investment money, not least in Northern Ireland, where any decision on reducing corporation tax may now be lost in the exit negotiations.

Different parts of the UK have different economic priorities inside or outside the European community. All will be pitching for themselves. A strong Foster-McGuinness axis will be needed to argue Northern Ireland's case in the forthcoming negotiations. Given their conflicting attitudes on the referendum and its aftermath, a test of their joint leadership will be to ensure that the special needs of Northern Ireland, such as in agriculture and in preserving peace and stability, are not ignored by whoever conducts the exit talks.

It is inconceivable that migrant boats might appear in Carlingford Lough but can we really continue to sustain an open border as Northern Ireland stands as the UK's only land frontier with Europe.

Secretary of State Villiers' memory does not seem to stretch back to times when long queues at border customs posts were common place. Or to when smuggling was rife and there were approved and unapproved border roads. It remains to be seen whether people criss-crossing a virtually non-existent border these days without restriction or delay will continue to enjoy such freedom of movement.

Every which way we look today, there are unanswered questions which it may take months if not years to clarify. Chief amongst them all is the question of the unity of the UK which has taken a battering at the polls this week. The whole body politic of these islands has been shaken. The margin of victory and defeat is wafer-thin. In some parts of the same UK many people found it inconceivable that their neighbours could contemplate voting to remain in Europe. In another council or constituency area nearby, a majority of people could not imagine staying.

This disparity in voting across the UK between council, constituency and region, and - most worrying of all for Northern Ireland- between England and Scotland, is deeply unsettling. After such a bruising battle in the referendum campaign, we are still left to wonder - and to worry what the future holds. A new dawn and the promised land seem a long way off still.

Belfast Telegraph

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