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EU Referendum: Self-obsessed tribal politics takes a back seat as, for once, it's not just all about us

By Fionola Meredith

Published 25/06/2016

Comedian Eddie Izzard (left) and the DUP’s Sammy Wilson debated the pros and cons of Brexit during a Belfast debate
Comedian Eddie Izzard (left) and the DUP’s Sammy Wilson debated the pros and cons of Brexit during a Belfast debate

As we wait for the noise levels to die down after the Brexit vote - shrieks of jubilation from victorious Leavers, deep disbelieving howls from the defeated Remain camp - it's worth remembering how relatively quiet it has been in Northern Ireland in the run-up to the EU referendum.

In a place known for the febrile, outspoken nature of its politics, the debate was curiously low-key and lacking in energy. Sure, speeches were made on all sides, declarations of intent given, but you sensed that the only people to whom it truly mattered were Sammy Wilson of the DUP, who was passionate about leaving the EU, and the SDLP's Claire Hanna, who was equally adamant about staying.

Out of all the mainstream parties, these two were the only ones who spoke with real fervour, as though they really cared about and believed in what they were saying.

Despite dire warnings about the threat to the peace process and the possible introduction of border controls, everyone else seemed restrained by unspoken ambivalences.

In part, this is down to our representatives' usual brand of insularity, myopia and self-obsession, reinforced by a commentariat who seem to find enormous significance in even the most trivial and obscure aspects of politics in this statelet.

If it's not all about them, directly, and their own very particular tribal and internecine doings, then it's not of primary importance.

Slugging it out among themselves and having big barnies about the contested past - and the equally contested future - is far more their style. Weighing up a complex set of speculative arguments about our place within Europe - not so much.

It was only towards the end of May, well after the Assembly elections and the establishment of the new Stormont administration, that the imminent European vote stirred the parties into taking visible action.

Arlene Foster - conscious of internal doubts within the DUP, and perhaps queasy at finding common ground (albeit for very different reasons) with the likes of dissident republican faction Eirigi, let alone David Trimble - made a rather restrained and careful case for voting Leave.

It was hedged about with phrases like "I have listened to the arguments on all sides of the debate" and "it is a conclusion I have arrived at after full and careful consideration". Put it this way, she wasn't exactly going the full Boris Johnson.

Sinn Fein, while calling for a Remain vote, scented an interesting opportunity for a border poll following a decision to Leave, which they are now pursuing with their customary zeal, fuelled by renewed tough talk from Scotland about going it alone.

This is where we could see real problems, and soon.

Not because there will be an Irish border referendum, or at least not imminently, but because the sudden fact of Brexit has the capacity to destabilise the new slightly-less-surly regime at Stormont by placing the constitutional issue once more centre stage.

And you know how that gets them all going.

Up until now they have been playing nice, focusing on sensible, urgent issues in health, justice, higher education.

Bring in the border, and the orange and green mists will rapidly descend.

Northern Ireland, overall, voted to remain, and there is currently much lamentation over the unfairness of being carried - biting, kicking and screaming - out of the EU against our will. Many people seem to consider themselves the victims of stupid old English bigots who wouldn't listen to reason.

Whether you believe the result to be a victory for democracy or not, it provides at least one salutary lesson.

It's not all about us.

Belfast Telegraph

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