Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Chorus of gloom has only served to harden resolve of unionists

Channel Four poll shows that dire warnings from nationalists have done little to undermine support in NI for Leave, says Eilis O'Hanlon

Pro-Brexit demonstrators at Westminster in 2016. Support for leaving the union has diminished in the two years since the referendum
Pro-Brexit demonstrators at Westminster in 2016. Support for leaving the union has diminished in the two years since the referendum
Abrasive: Simon Coveney

According to a new poll for Channel Four, a majority of people in the UK would now vote Remain rather than Leave.

Of course, it's not quite as straightforward as that. The survey does not show what the result would be in a second referendum, only the current state of play before any campaign begins.

In the two years leading up to the first referendum in 2016 only a tiny fraction of opinion polls ever showed Leave to be ahead of Remain.

Leave supporters would simply be starting any new campaign roughly where they were before the last one, which, after months of scaremongering about planes not flying and food and vital medicines running out within days of a 'no-deal' scenario, really isn't that bad at all.

What's much more interesting from a Northern Ireland point of view is what the poll - unveiled on Monday evening's special programme Brexit: What The Nation Really Thinks - says has happened to opinion here since the 2016 referendum.

Across the whole of the UK, suggest pollsters Survation, who conducted the latest research, there's been a six-point shift from Leave to Remain. In some areas the swing is in double figures.

Wales has apparently gone over to Remain. Cornwall and Devon, where struggling fishermen said 'no' to the EU in 2016, has changed its mind.

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Even some of those solidly working class heartlands in the North East have seemingly fallen out of love with Brexit too.

In Northern Ireland support for Leave has dropped by a mere two percentage points. When votes were counted two years ago, 56% of voters on this side of the Irish Sea were for Remain and 44% for Leave.

Current support for Leave here now stands at 42% per cent. In polling terms, that is a drop in the ocean. It's within the margin of error. It could well be that opinion hasn't shifted at all.

That's quite remarkable considering that negotiations around Brexit have become bogged down in rows over the Irish border, and that dire warnings have been issued about what will happen if a hard border returns.

Some of those prophecies have been practically apocalyptic. Senator Neale Richmond, chair of the Irish parliament's Brexit committee, told an interviewer last month that if there was a hard border "there'll be a return to violence within a week".

More senior politicians have also joined the chorus of gloom. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar actually went to a Brussels summit dinner recently bearing a copy of a newspaper report into the 1972 bombing of a Newry customs post, which left six innocent victims and three IRA volunteers dead. He said it was to "show how far we have come in 30 years, from violence to peace". Others suspected it was a headline-grabbing stunt.

Either way, it seems that Leave voters in Northern Ireland are unconvinced by this deluge of doom-mongering. Or, more likely still, that they're seriously ticked off at it, not least by the cynical implication that they would be responsible for the return of violence post-Brexit.

It's hard to think of anything more offensive than blaming victims, indirectly or otherwise, for whatever harm might be inflicted upon them by terrorists merely for expecting a democratic referendum result to be upheld, yet this is what's happened repeatedly. As such, the Taoiseach and his Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney should examine this poll, and their own role in shaping opinion here very closely.

It's not simply that the swing from Leave to Remain is just one third as strong here as it is nationally in the rest of the UK. Channel Four's data also shows that the largest swing against Brexit has been among groups which, back in 2016, were most strongly for it.

In Northern Ireland that group consists largely of unionists, two-thirds of whom voted to leave the EU. Varadkar and Coveney should have been more aware from the start that, when they were whining about Brexit, they were also haranguing those people. London has toned down the traditional condescension when it comes to Irish nationalists, recognising that, historically, it's not been a winning strategy.

The current government in Dublin still seems unable to grasp that talking down to unionists is not a good look either, and is unlikely to win them many friends. That the Leave vote in Northern Ireland is, relative to the UK as a whole, holding up surprisingly well may be their handiwork.

Ever since coming into office Leo and Simon have banged the nationalist drum, possibly with an eye on wooing Sinn Fein into coalition after the next election. Brexit has simply become another issue on which the two parties are conducting a coquettish love-in. Despite being supposedly eurosceptic right up until the moment Britain voted to leave the EU, Sinn Fein is gleefully exploiting difficulties in talks in Brussels, urging the Taoiseach to "stand firm" against the British Brexit Secretary's position that any backstop arrangement at the border must be time-limited.

Irish republicans and the Irish Government have increasingly come to be seen as speaking with one voice. It shouldn't be a surprise that unionists in this latest poll have given two fingers to such posturing. It's impossible to plot so relentlessly to undermine Brexit without that coming across as being targeted at one community.

Unionists would be foolish to allow their position on future EU relationships to be dictated by the inexperienced Varadkar's partisan bungling. Brexit does pose dangers to the Union which it would be reckless to ignore.

The long-term survival of Northern Ireland as part of the UK depends upon securing the goodwill of Irish nationalists who, rightly or wrongly, think their identity and rights are better protected under the wide umbrella of the EU, and approximately 90% of whom voted to Remain.

Europe's suggestion that Northern Ireland stays within the customs union, whilst the rest of the UK goes its merry way, is obviously anathema to unionists, but, by also backing hard Brexiteers' resistance to the whole of the UK staying closely tied to the EU, the DUP has backed itself into a corner. A softer Brexit for all the home nations might stick in their craws, but could ultimately be in unionists' best interests.

Mostly, though, it's Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney who need to heed the message in the Channel Four poll. It's quite a feat that they have helped to stall the UK-wide swing to Remain in the one area of the country which may be worst affected by Brexit.

Belfast Telegraph


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