Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Poll shows big majority believes Brexit makes united Ireland more likely - yet unionists still support it, while republicans are against? Did I miss an email somewhere?


The DUP's Arlene Foster
The DUP's Arlene Foster
Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill
Broadcasters Stephen Nolan and Claire Byrne

It was the political equivalent of Celebrity Wife Swap. RTE's Claire Byrne came up to Belfast to host Monday evening's special joint broadcast on Brexit with BBC Northern Ireland, and Stephen Nolan went down to Dublin to do what he does best - start a row.

Some of his fiercest critics back home were probably wishing he would just stay there. He's a divisive figure, to say the least. Let Nolan loose on a divisive subject and sparks are bound to fly. And there's no more contentious subject right now than Brexit.

What's that old biblical saying about a nation divided against itself being brought to desolation? It increasingly feels these days as if that's coming to pass as the UK's exit from the EU drags to a still far from certain conclusion, with Northern Ireland stuck, literally and metaphorically, in the middle.

When times are confusing broadcasters do what they've always done: commission a poll. So it was this week, too. The BBC/RTE survey asked a range of predictable questions: should Brexit be cancelled if it means the return of a hard border? Should there be a second referendum on the terms of a deal?

The results showed that opinion across the island is fairly consistent in favour of giving up on Brexit if it means the restoration of a hard border, and on holding a second referendum on the terms of any deal with Brussels.

Support for those two propositions is somewhat higher in the Republic than in Northern Ireland, but that's only to be expected.

A few isolated voices aside, there is no tradition of euroscepticism in Ireland. In fact, contentment with the EU remains at record levels despite being forced to bear the brunt of the financial crash.

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If being bullied into paying for everyone else's mistakes didn't make the Irish turn against Europe, they're hardly likely to be swayed now by Sammy Wilson or Nigel Farage or Jacob Rees-Mogg in full flow.

There is disagreement when it comes to asking people on either side of the border if they think they'll be financially worse or better-off after Brexit, with people in the north being more pessimistic about future prosperity; but that's hardly surprising either. Brexit will happen directly to us and only indirectly to them. What's much more striking is the difference of opinion between the two jurisdictions when asked whether Brexit makes a united Ireland more or less likely. A thumping 62% of people in Northern Ireland said yes, while only 32% in the Republic said the same.

That's quite a contrast. More people down south actually believe that Brexit makes a united Ireland less likely than otherwise. On no other question does opinion north and south diverge so sharply and it's hard to immediately understand why that should be the case.

It could be that southerners, confused like the rest of us about what Brexit means in practical terms, are daunted by the challenge of overcoming all the new barriers which the UK's exit from Europe may throw up and have given up on the dream of unity for now.

Or could it be that respondents in the south, when asked the question, were thinking not of how Brexit would change the political dynamics in Northern Ireland for the worse, but simply of their own attitude to northerners?

In other words, that Brexit was making the long yearned-for prospect of reuniting with us less attractive to them?

If so, that's quite worrying because it suggests that unity is only appealing to many southerners if Northern Ireland knows its place and doesn't make too much of a nuisance of itself.

There's always been an undercurrent of that superiority complex in the Republic. Irish unity was imagined merely as an expansion of the 26 county state, rather than something new forged from the fusion of two politically and culturally distinct entities, combining, fingers crossed, the best elements of both.

The enthusiasm in certain quarters of unionism for Brexit may be reminding people down south of just how wedded those curious creatures north of the border are to their Britishness - and they don't like it one bit. Looking ahead, many have clearly concluded: united Ireland? No thanks.

Stranger still in many ways is the corresponding attitude of unionists and republicans up here to all this. From these latest figures, a significant majority of us believe Brexit makes Irish unity more likely, but unionists still support it anyway, and nationalists still oppose it.

Did they miss a memo somewhere? Isn't a united Ireland what each is supposed to most desire or fear (according to their lights)?

Instead, each side seems intent on adopting positions which go against their own interests, with nothing in return except the pleasure of seeing their traditional enemies squirm.

It's particularly discombobulating to watch advocates of Irish unity, normally so uncompromising in their demands, suddenly drop the ancient adage "England's difficulty is Ireland's opportunity" and transform into Father Ted, standing on the sidelines waving placards with the timorous slogans "Careful now" and "Down with this sort of thing".

Naturally, it's not the done thing to publicly admit to welcoming a bit of constitutional chaos to advance a particular endgame and Sinn Fein - officially, at any rate - has to pretend to be a responsible, grown-up political party; but polls, like confessional boxes, are secret. One can use them to admit to socially unacceptable urges.

If Irish unity is more likely after Brexit and would, according to a much-publicised recent report by German economist Kurt Hubner, generate a £16bn windfall for the island as a whole by 2025 alone, why are republicans so dead set on resisting it?

Whatever the reason, they should be careful not to be too successful. UK-wide support for Brexit has been whittled away over the past two years by a cocktail of fear about what lies ahead. Some of that has been genuine concern; some of it cynical scaremongering by people who never wanted Brexit anyway.

Exactly the same forces against radical change would be deployed to thwart any future unification poll, too, just as they were against advocates of Scottish independence.

If the will of the British people can be clinically undermined by obstructionists with a vested interest in the status quo, the will of the Irish people can be undone also.

It would be the ultimate irony if republicans didn't see the dangers just because they were enjoying too much giving smug English Tories and DUP Brexiteers a bloody nose.

Belfast Telegraph


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