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Why the EU vote could drive Catholic unionists towards Sinn Fein and a united Ireland

Fears of a Scotland-less United Kingdom run by old Etonians, and the economic realities of breaking with the European Union, could spark a renewed drive for Irish reunification, writes Malachi O'Doherty

Published 18/08/2015

An Easter Rising parade makes its way to Milltown Cemetery
An Easter Rising parade makes its way to Milltown Cemetery
Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams

I grew up in a culture that was built around a clear understanding that the partition of Ireland was an injustice that would one day have to be put right. This was an Ireland in which the border was a painful reality.

Our extended family was divided by this border, and when we crossed it to visit cousins in Donegal we had to have a triangular piece of paper on the windscreen of the car to show it could legally travel there.

Even before the Troubles, we were stopped by B-Specials and sometimes at the customs post, though we were usually waved through and wondered what those men did to earn their pay.

We had the clear sense we were moving into a place that was different. The roads were shabbier. The cigarettes and chocolate were different. Ads for Sweet Afton and Major flaked off old shop walls.

But when people discussed whether Ireland would really be united someday, several counter arguments were routine.

One was that the south wouldn't be able to afford us. Our side of the family had come north for better prospects. We had our dole and our National Health Service and we would hardly want to give them up to live in a shabby country where you had to pay the doctor.

Another argument was that the European Union would do away with the border anyway and we would hardly know it wasn't all one country. Then the passion for unity would dissipate.

These observations turned out to have a certain amount of good sense in them.

Now, after the Troubles, the border is invisible. The currency is different, but one feels more cosmopolitan with the Euro. For all that it is weak and vulnerable, it is not like the old punt or the Irish pound before it, which was no use to you anywhere else.

Northerners are conscious that they are better off with the NHS than they would be under the Irish system.

So, after a generation of political violence and agonising about the border, the problem seems to have gone away.

Northern nationalists might not like to admit it, but they have a good deal, with British services in a more prosperous part of Ireland from which they can enjoy the rest of the island without hindrance.

And that maybe explains why surveys suggest that in a referendum, about a third of the Catholic/nationalist/whatever-you-call-it community would leave things as they are.

Not every partitioned country hungers for unity. Germany managed reunification with difficulty, but after only 40 years of partition. We are coming up to a full century of it.

India and Pakistan, far from yearning to be reunited, have armed themselves with nuclear weapons against each other.

So when Martin McGuinness says that a united Ireland is "inevitable", what can he be thinking? In the grand Sinn Fein plan, perhaps he perceives Sinn Fein in government on both sides of the border simultaneously as a form of unification. It might be made to feel like it for a time.

Embellish the vision further with a Sinn Fein president and a presidency of the whole island, elected by votes from the north, and that will look even more like a single country, a nation once again.

But those achievements, if in sight, would still be ephemeral.

Yet, if we go back to look at those reassurances for northern nationalists - the European Union and the health service - we might also ask how dependable they still are as props to Catholic confidence that things are all right as they are.

Currently, the Conservative Government in Britain is planning for a referendum on whether or not to leave the EU.

It is an open secret that Prime Minister David Cameron does not want to leave, but he could blunder into it, much as Labour has blundered into reawakening British socialism.

And the next likely leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, is also saying that he might campaign for a No vote if reforms negotiated before the referendum are insufficient.

So, the union with Europe is not secure and the union with Britain may come to feel a lot less comfortable for many if a border is restored from Muff to Omeath with customs posts on all main roads.

How much of a nationalist might I be if I had to show a passport to get into Donegal?

And how much tighter might that border be during a refugee crisis?

Already we have had Ukip suggesting that the border needs to be tightened to hold back the thousands of Syrian and Eritrean refugees who are trying to get into Britain.

A Britain outside the EU would radically tighten its controls on migrants and refugees. A consequence of that for us living by a land border with the European Union would be that fences would go up.

Paradoxically, that would be good for Irish unity because the contented nationalists of today would be a lot less content. Many would seek an early referendum on unity to get back into the EU and out of an entrenched little Britain.

But then we would be giving up our health service too. But how confident are we that this Tory government, let alone successive Tory governments will preserve it? Not at all.

I hear what Cameron and Osborne say about the NHS, but I don't trust them not to replace it with something like the American system.

The Good Friday and St Andrews agreements were hammered out under Labour governments before the economic collapse of 2008, before the revival of the Tories and British euroscepticism, before the refugee crisis and, crucially, also before the rise of Scottish nationalism.

For decades, we had thought we were the only ones agonising about the union and that we had only to make our own collective mind up and settle down again. In the meantime, the whole character of the union went into flux.

If you doubt that Northern nationalists would want out of Britain if Britain left Europe, ask what their alternative would be. For Scotland would go first and then we would be stuck in a union with England and Wales, run by old Etonians.

It doesn't take a mathematician to work out that Catholic middle-class people in Belfast might decide that they would be better off in a united Ireland inside Europe, and that enough of them might think that the way to shift the balance is in a referendum. Martin McGuinness might not have worked it out yet, but David Cameron could be his ally.

Belfast Telegraph

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