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Eu referendum: The rest of UK may be able to survive European ordeal... but what about us?

The campaigning is nearly over, with only the votes to cast and count. But what sort of world will we all wake up to on Friday? Eilis O'Hanlon peers into her looking glass...

Published 22/06/2016

The decision made by UK voters in tomorrow’s referendum will mean that nothing will be the same again
The decision made by UK voters in tomorrow’s referendum will mean that nothing will be the same again

In the past few weeks, the rest of the country has discovered what it's like to be Northern Irish, as every important issue is reduced to one simple choice - in or out? Should we stay, or should we go?

For us, historically, this madness was known as the "national question". For the rest of the UK right now, it's the "international question", as voters debate whether to leave, or remain part of, the European Union.

The resulting paranoia and hostility is depressingly familiar, as is the absolute certainty that everyone on the other side of the argument must either be a traitor, or a fool, a liar, or a dupe.

This style of debate seems to have come as a shock to British voters. Welcome to our world. The variables are too complex to compute, so we invariably turn huge questions of national identity into tug-of-war contests to see who's more Irish, more British, more wrong, more right.

The bad news for our fellow citizens, as we could have warned them, is that the rancour doesn't end when you have a final answer. Whether it's Remain, or Leave, after the votes are counted tomorrow night, nothing will ever be the same again.

Say it's Brexit. Not hard to imagine, with pundits and polls agreeing that the race is neck-and-neck. The first obvious change is that it will be bye, bye for David Cameron.

The Prime Minister will be on the hunt for a new job, though he'd be advised to go looking for one in the City of London, rather than in Europe, where he'll be as welcome as an attack of dysentery in a diving suit as the humbled leader of the only country ever to exit the EU.

To be honest, we could probably cope with a new PM, even if we are then forced to endure the unedifying spectacle of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove slogging it out to be crowned King of the Brexiteers.

Whoever wins would then have the Herculean task of negotiating the best deal for Britain with 27 countries who all hate his, and our, guts, to a backdrop of meltdown in the Labour Party as swathes of traditional working-class voters rise up to hail Ukip's Nigel Farage as a saviour.

Scotland, meanwhile, will be eyeing up another referendum, just as soon as someone figures out how to stop the price of North Sea oil plummeting.

Northern Ireland will be in the strangest position of all. Not only are we the only ones not physically attached to the rest of the UK, and, therefore, by far the easiest to cut loose if we ever start looking like a luxury they can no longer afford, we'll also have a First Minister who - despite belonging to a party so passionately unionist that the blood runs red, white and blue when her male colleagues cut themselves shaving - came out for a Brexit which may well lead to the very break-up of the United Kingdom.

As for the border, where do you start? It probably won't be as big a problem as the Remainers are claiming - good neighbours should be able to thrash out some mutually agreeable arrangement - but it wasn't meant to be a problem at all any more.

Republican dissidents will be delighted that it's back and will be scrabbling to exploit any confusion around security. Smugglers may find themselves in demand again.

The economy will be trickier still. With growth rates one-third lower than the rest of the UK and higher unemployment, we're not as insulated from the shocks as our compatriots. And, with a whopping 55% of our exports going to the EU, the future may quickly look ... challenging. Isn't that the word they always use to soften the blow?

Of course, the bulk of those exports go south to the Irish Republic, and they wouldn't turn their backs on us, would they?

Not unless Angela Merkel tells them to, that is, and European leaders will hardly be in a mood to show magnanimity. They let cancer patients in Greece suffer to punish one uppity Left-wing government. Why would they lose sleep over what they'd see as our self-inflicted woes?

Overall, the Assembly's Enterprise Committee reckons that Northern Ireland could lose €1bn a year as a result of Brexit. That's better than £1bn, but it's not small potatoes.

Speaking of which, the farmers will need paid regularly. The Brexiteers will no doubt promise to make up any shortfall from the cash saved by stopping our contribution to the gargantuan, bloated EU budget, but they've already pledged that money to everyone from the junior doctors to the fishermen.

If all that makes your hair stand on end, it's not entirely clear that a Remain vote tomorrow will usher in a land of milk and honey, either.

David Cameron may immediately face a leadership challenge from disgruntled Outers in the Tory Party. That would be petulance, but then they are politicians.

Shrug off that and the PM may feel emboldened to stamp his authority on the Cabinet. That, surely, would mean a new Secretary of State, as Theresa Villiers is shuffled off to make way for a Cameron loyalist, paying the ultimate career price for having finally expressed an opinion about something (who knew she had it in her?)

Perhaps Baroness Warsi, who switched sides at the start of the week to back the Remain camp, would get the job as a reward, though, as the first Muslim to hold the role, she'd face the inevitable question on arriving in Stormont - is she a Catholic Muslim, or a Protestant Muslim?

Don't rule out a cull. John Major famously lambasted what the eurosceptic "b******s" in his Cabinet; Cameron, too, will know his true friends from his enemies.

What's bizarre is that Arlene Foster would have positioned herself in the second category. Dr Ian Paisley may have relished his battles with Westminster, but the new DUP leader appears much less comfortable being at odds with Downing Street.

Suddenly, she'd find that the new good eggs in the political basket were Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, who'd helped Eton boy Cameron secure his victory by campaigning for Britain to stay in the EU - despite not wanting to be part of Britain in the first place.

It's surreal scenarios like these which illustrate just what a topsy turvy, Alice in Wonderland world has been thrown up by this referendum in every corner of the UK.

The "national question" may turn out to have been relatively straightforward by comparison. At least we knew back then who was on what side and why.

The good news is that we in Northern Ireland only make up 3% of more than 40 million voters around the country, so we're unlikely to swing it.

But with the stakes so high, it's important that we back the winner. No one wants to be in the losing corner when the final bell is rung.

Not least when we're the one part of the UK which is still least able to stand alone. Britain as a whole will survive and arguably thrive, whatever the verdict. But will we?

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