Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: Nationalists should be careful what they wish for over Brexit

And then all their anti-democratic tactics could be used against them in the event of a majority in favour of Irish unity, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

An Irish customs checkpoint on the road between Newry and Dundalk in 1981
An Irish customs checkpoint on the road between Newry and Dundalk in 1981
Eilis O'Hanlon

By Eilis O'Hanlon

Sinn Fein and the SDLP should beware of being so gleeful at the mounting difficulties facing Boris Johnson as he tries to honour the result of the 2016 referendum by taking Britain out of the EU on October 31, with or without a deal.

If there ever was a vote for a united Ireland, who's to say that it wouldn't get bogged down in the same legal and political quagmire?

More to the point, how would nationalists and republicans feel if, three years on from a border poll that they won, the result had still not been respected because those who never wanted it to happen in the first place kept finding new ways to thwart it?

That's not such an unlikely scenario. There's never going to be a sweeping vote in favour of a united Ireland. If and when it comes, the margin of victory is bound to be narrow.

There will be plenty of people afterwards doing some creative accounting on the numbers, as Remainers immediately did after the Brexit vote, to argue that there was no real majority for Irish unity, once all the people who stayed at home and didn't vote were included in the overall figure.

In due course, the same arguments as to why the result shouldn't be acted upon would begin in earnest. Did those who backed a united Ireland really know what they were voting for, after all?

Just in the past few weeks, economists at Trinity College Dublin produced a report which predicted that there would be a "dramatic fall" in the standard of living for people in Northern Ireland after unification as the Republic was forced to shoulder the huge cost of the annual transfer from Westminster.

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Either taxes would have to go up or public spending would need to fall. Opponents would soon be asking: is that genuinely what voters wanted when they said yes to a united Ireland? Surely, no one ever votes to make themselves poorer?

There would undoubtedly be security implications to unity too. Without tempting fate, it is hard to believe that there could be a transition to a united Ireland without the risk of violence breaking out.

If the threat of attacks on customs posts by dissident republicans is serious enough to stop Brexit, shouldn't the possibility that "50% +1 would mean civil war", as one loyalist leader on the Shankill Road bluntly told reporters earlier this year, also merit a rethink?

Nationalists in Northern Ireland and Scotland have both argued for the past three years that the fact they voted to remain in the EU ought to give them a get-out clause from being forced to accept Brexit.

Having done so, they could hardly object if those who didn't want to abide by the result of a future border poll demanded something well short of full unity.

Those aforementioned loyalists who warned about civil war even suggested that some kind of confederation between Northern Ireland and Scotland might be the way to go.

That sounds like a recipe for madness. But is it really any crazier than nationalist suggestions that Northern Ireland could stay within the EU while the rest of the UK leaves?

Come to think of it, why should constituencies which vote against Irish unity in a border poll be forced to accept the result at all if those regions which rejected Brexit can demand their own get out clauses?

Plenty of loyalists during the Troubles flirted with the idea of repartition. It's not unthinkable that such proposals might enjoy a revival of interest if a united Ireland was on the cards in the near future. Antrim and north Down going it alone with a handful of other pro-Union areas might be pie in the sky, but it was considered at the highest levels of the British and Irish governments in the past as one solution to violence.

When the break-up of the UK is being heartily cheered on by opponents of Brexit, they would hardly have any right to complain if Irish unity rejectionists played the same dangerous game.

It's not what was envisaged by the Belfast Agreement in the event of a majority here opting to leave the UK, but if the Liberal Democrats can campaign on the slogan 'B******* to Brexit', why shouldn't those against Irish unity rally under the banner 'B******* to the Belfast Agreement'?

It's for all these reasons that some politicians, such as the SDLP's former Deputy First Minister, Seamus Mallon, in his recent book, argue that there needs to be a built-in clause that any border poll should be required to reach at least a 60% threshold, or even that it carry the support of a majority of both communities, before being enacted.

Sinn Fein and the SDLP surely wouldn't be gullible enough to fall into the trap of calling for a second Brexit referendum to be made dependent on a so-called "weighted majority", when that would play right into the hands of unionists now saying that 50% +1 shouldn't be enough to trigger a change in Northern Ireland's constitutional status, either.

But they're still playing with political fire in getting so eagerly behind the campaign to move the goalposts on Brexit.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has even declared that Brexit should be "called to a halt". Presumably that means, if Northern Ireland votes for unity, there are circumstances in which it would be legitimate to call for that to be halted too.

Some clever constitutional lawyer is probably hard at work already, dredging up obscure 17th-century acts of Parliament in readiness to argue in court that a united Ireland is unlawful too.

In fact, it's all so fiendishly complicated that maybe we shouldn't be allowed to have a vote on the border at all.

How can we little people know enough to be trusted with such a momentous decision? Best just leave it to the "experts".

At the very least, let's agree right now that Irish unity should be put to a second, confirmatory People's Vote once we know what the exact terms of any future arrangement will be.

See how easy it is to slyly undermine the results of referendums by sowing doubt and division?

Nationalists should be careful what they wish for on Brexit. Their wishes might just come true.

Then it will be their own longed-for aspirations which are targeted for undoing by those who think they know what's right for Northern Ireland better than the people themselves.

They've certainly had plenty of practise in the last three years at undermining democratic votes.

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