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Destruction of the Union scare stories falling on deaf ears

However we vote in the referendum, most people here refuse to accept the claim peddled by some of our politicians that a Brexit will inevitably lead to the break-up of the UK, writes Alex Kane

Published 21/06/2016

Former Prime Ministers Tony Blair And Sir John Major united to back the Remain campaign on a recent visit to Derry city
Former Prime Ministers Tony Blair And Sir John Major united to back the Remain campaign on a recent visit to Derry city

Like so many other things in life, it's the statistics behind the headlines that tell the real story. So, for example, when yesterday's Belfast Telegraph Ipsos/MORI poll indicated that a majority of Protestants (and it's fair to assume that most of them are unionists) are sceptical about the merits of EU membership, many people would have assumed that the scepticism was linked to their concerns about UK sovereignty and the "constitutional integrity" of the UK.

Yet more of those polled placed bureaucracy, membership costs and fewer open borders before their concerns about a possible break-up of the UK. Which, in turn, suggests, that they're not buying into the line peddled by some in the Remain camp that a vote to Leave represents a danger to the Union.

A few months ago, the UUP decided that, "on balance", it would be better if the UK remained in the EU. Writing in this newspaper on March 7, Mike Nesbitt said: "My question is simple. How can a unionist support Brexit when it clearly poses an existential threat to the future of the Union they believe in?

"You can argue Ms Sturgeon will press the referendum button sooner or later, but I do not want my fingerprints on that button."

But yesterday's poll seems to confirm that a majority of unionists don't regard Brexit as an existential threat (significantly, even those unionists who will be voting Remain don't cite the UK's constitutional integrity as a pressing concern).

Indeed, the poll also indicates that, in response to the question, "Who, if any, of these individuals will be important to you in deciding how to vote?" (the list included Arlene Foster, Boris Johnson, David Cameron, Jim Allister, Mike Nesbitt and Theresa Villiers), the pro-Brexit Foster trumped Nesbitt by 22% to 10%. And since the UUP also failed to make any traction in last month's Assembly election, it seems fair to conclude that its pro-EU stance damaged the party electorally.

One of the conundrums raised by the referendum can be summed up thus: Why are a majority of unionists backing Brexit when it could undermine the Union; and why are a majority of nationalists/republicans supporting a Conservative Prime Minister's argument that "a vote to Remain is in the best interests of the United Kingdom"?

In terms of unionism, the poll answers the question: most of them, Remain and Leave, don't seem to believe that the Union is under threat, anyway.

According to the poll, of the Catholics who believe the UK would be weaker if it left the EU, only a fraction think that it "would begin the break-up of the UK". In other words, they don't buy into Brexit as an existential threat, either.

That said, an overwhelming majority of Catholics/nationalists/republicans will vote Remain, which tends to suggest they believe their chances of Irish unity are better inside, rather than outside the EU - which seems to be the thinking of the SNP, as well.

Ironically, anti-UK nationalism believes it has a better chance of furthering its agenda if the UK remains in the even bigger union of the EU.

There is logic in their thinking. It is much easier to push for Scottish independence and Irish unity if both Scotland and Northern Ireland are in the EU at the time. Irish unity would be tricky enough without the added complication of having to renegotiate membership of the EU, as well. It's not, perhaps, an insurmountable problem, but it certainly complicates the dynamics for both Scottish and Irish nationalists.

If the SNP and Sinn Fein believed that Brexit would hasten the break-up of the UK, they would support Brexit. But it won't, so they don't: another one of those peculiar ironies thrown up by the referendum.

I was particularly interested in the responses to the question, "If the UK were to leave the EU, how, if at all, do you think NI's relationship with the RoI would be affected?" Some 28% (32% Protestant/24% Catholic) thought there would be no impact at all, while 30% (28% Protestant/33% Catholic) thought there might be border controls and checkpoints.

A minuscule number from both sides believed it would worsen relationships, damage the peace process, or reignite the Troubles - an almost trivial response given the warnings from key figures in the Remain camp. The poll suggests that scare tactics from either side are not working.

As of June 12, when this poll was concluded, 37% of respondents (27% Protestant/20% Catholic) were either undecided, or didn't know the answer to the question, "Do you believe the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland would be weaker if it left the EU?". Of those who did answer, 37% believed the UK would be weaker and 26% thought it would be stronger. So, it looks like the undecided/don't knows will swing the result.

Since June 12 there have been some key debates. Nigel Farage launched his "Breaking Point" poster, most of the newspapers declared their hand and Jo Cox was murdered. All of those factors, and dozens of others, will have an impact.

The undecided will finally make up their mind (although, for many, it may be not to vote), while some who thought they had picked a side will have had their minds changed by events and rising fears.

I think the main thing to draw from this poll is that neither the Brexit nor Remain side believes that all that much will actually change, irrespective of the outcome.

They don't fear a return to violence, or a collapse of the Assembly, and seem to believe the UK and the Republic will still have a good relationship.

There is no sense that the Union will fall apart if Brexit wins. The idea of a "hard border" doesn't exercise the minds of a substantial majority in either the unionist or nationalist camps.

The odds remain in favour of Northern Ireland voting to stay in the EU. Indeed, the odds remain in favour of the UK staying. So, one final irony: given the absence of toxicity and anger in the campaign here, for once we look normal compared to how the campaign has raged in England.

Belfast Telegraph

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