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Brexit and the view from Northern Ireland

Peter Geoghegan, BelfastJune 19, 2016

Polls in Northern Ireland suggest voters will opt for the UK to remain in the EU. A Brexit vote could seriously undermine the peace process. Peter Geoghegan reports from Belfast.

Nordirland Grenze
Image: Getty Images/AFP/P. Faith

Earlier this month, a special centenary exhibition opened on the top floor of a sun-kissed Ulster Museum in Belfast. Colorful panels commemorated contrasting experiences of an historic year in Ireland: in 1916, republicans launched the Easter Rising in Dublin, which eventually led to independence; far away, thousands of Ulster soldiers died fighting during World War I.

A hundred years on, Ireland is a more peaceful place, but politics still divide, especially on the north-east corner. In a few days' time, Northern Ireland will vote in the UK's referendum on EU membership. Polls suggest most of Northern Irish voters will elect to remain, but opinions are split on whether to stay or to go.

On the predominantly Protestant Woodvale Road in west Belfast, a poster remembering the Battle of the Somme sits proudly among the sausage rolls and cartons of eggs on the counter of Sammy's butcher shop. Proprietor Nathan Mooney has few doubts about the June 23 referendum.

"I'm voting out. All the red tape we have been tied up in is just too much," Mooney tells DW. As well as bureaucracy in Brussels, the butcher believes that the UK sends too much money to the EU. Leave campaigners claim that figure is £350 million (443 million euros, $500 million) a week; Remain advocates argue that it's less than half that.

Belfast is a less restive city than during the Troubles, the three decades of violence that cost over 3,000 lives, but 15-foot-high corrugated fences still separate Protestant/unionist and Catholic/nationalist communities in west Belfast. On the other side of the 'peaceline,' attitudes toward the European Union are less strident.

"I'm not voting but if I was, I'd vote to stay in; it's better for business," says Sean Morgan, surrounded by Celtic jerseys, replica guns and copies of the proclamation of Ireland in his shop, Fenians.

Brits at the border

The Fenians were 19th century Irish republicans, committed to a United Ireland. Morgan is most worried about the prospect of a hard border being established between Northern Ireland and its southern neighbour, the Irish Republic, if the UK does vote to leave the EU.

a group of people holding up a banner Copyright: imago/Westend61
Pro-EU politicians from Westminster have been campaigning hard in Northern IrelandImage: picture-alliance/PA Wire/N. Carson

"If down south [the Republic] stays in and we leave, we'll have Brits at the border and we'll have chaos at the border," he tells DW. "I can't see any other way if we leave than to put up the border, which will be chaos."

Such fears of border chaos may not be as far-fetched as they first appear. Even during the Troubles, people could move with relative ease between both jurisdictions due to an informal arrangement known as the Common Travel Area (CTA). But a recent report by MPs on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee said that in the event of Brexit, the future of the CTA "would be put into question."

Irish Premier Enda Kenny recently raised the prospect of border controls being reimposed if Britain left the EU. Former UK prime ministers John Major and Tony Blair recently warned that Brexit could undermine the Northern Irish peace process and reopen the question of a united Ireland.

Peace process at risk

Theresa Villiers, the UK government's Northern Ireland secretary and a Brexit supporter, disagrees, but her position was described as "untenable" by Hugh Orde, a former chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

"The vision of Border controls plays into the hands of those who are yet to realize the armed struggle is over," Orde, who headed the Northern Irish police for seven years, told DW.

Brexit could destabilize the peace process, says Duncan Morrow, director of community engagement at the University of Ulster.

"This is probably the most important election we have ever faced," he told DW. "There is a fine thread that holds Northern Ireland together, and it could unravel."

Northern Ireland: A danger for peace

Northern Irish politics typically divides along constitutional lines, but this time around the Democratic Unionists, the largest party in the devolved assembly in Belfast, are campaigning to leave while almost all the other major parties want to remain.

In 1998, just over 70 percent of Northern Irish voters supported the Good Friday Agreement, which effectively ended the conflict. Almost two decades later, a similar number are expected to support staying in the EU, says Morrow.

"It's the same coalition that passed the (Good Friday) Agreement. All of the nationalist community and half of the Protestants support (the EU)."

Sammy Wilson, a Democratic Unionist MP and leading Leave voice in Northern Ireland, disagrees.

EU shackles

"Freed from the shackles of the EU, we would be much more fleet of foot," says Wilson. "The Commonwealth is a market of 1.2 billion (people), that is a market we should be concentrating on rather than the stagnating EU."

A naval ship Copyright: picture-alliance/PA Wire/J. Stillwell
Leave proponents say Northern Ireland's economy would be better off outside the EUImage: picture-alliance/PA Wire/J. Stillwell

Northern Ireland is more reliant on agriculture than other parts of the UK. A third of the population of just over 1.5 million live in rural areas, and there were 24,200 active farms in Northern Ireland in 2014. Direct EU payments to farmers represent 87 percent of annual farm income, according to recent research.

Northern Irish Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill has said that a vote to leave the EU would be "a huge gamble" and that there are no promises of replacement funds being provided by the UK Treasury.

Unsurprisingly, Wilson disagrees. "Many small famers will be voting to leave," he says. "There is no conceivable chance of agricultural subsidies not being continued if we left the EU."

Northern Ireland is often depicted as 'a place apart' in UK politics, with different issues and party structures. But when it comes to Brexit, it seems Northern Ireland is not that different after all. The rival campaigners trade figures and conjectures - and occasionally insults - and the voters are left to sift fact from fiction.