Whilst it’s true to say that the United Kingdom has not shrunk in size, why do so many refer to it post-Brexit as ’Little Britain’? The UK, in political terms, has lost its influence within Europe and the recent petty refusal to grant full diplomatic status to the 25 strong EU mission in London underlines this rapid retreat.
A recent article in the Sunday Times (24 January), ‘Union in Crisis’, reports on the results of a new poll which shows that there is now a majority in both Northern Ireland and Scotland who want referendums which could break up the UK.
We all know that Scotland voted to remain in the EU and that the Scottish National Party (SNP) is determined to hold a referendum on Scottish Independence as soon as possible.But what of Northern Ireland which also voted to remain, could they also leave, and the UK really shrink in size?
Brexit has had many unintended consequences and one of them has certainly been to destabilise Northern Irish politics. Evidence suggests that it significantly increased Catholic support for a united Ireland. Some commentators insist it has also created a middle-class Protestant constituency for unity, impressed by the modernising style of Leo Varadkar, the former Taoiseach. (Prime Minister) of Ireland.
While it’s still early days in terms of Brexit impact in Northern Ireland, it has gone really badly so far according to multiple press reports which have often showed empty supermarket shelves. Hauliers and importers complain of the extra red tape and costs and many are refusing to supply directly to Northern Ireland from the UK.
The Northern Ireland Secretary, Brendan Lewis, says there will be no transition periods granted and the chaos is causing huge political difficulties for the DUP who actively supported the vote for Brexit. DUP MP, Ian Paisley, said he was aware of haulage companies ‘haemorrhaging’ £100,000 a week and having to lay off staff because they were unable to move produce due to the new red tape.
How this plays out in the weeks and months ahead may have even greater consequences than we think. The Sunday Times poll shows a growing support for a border poll within the next five years and if the chaos, uncertainty and unfilled supermarket shelves continue it seems that the solution could be a united Ireland, within the EU. However, there is little appetite by the Irish Government for a united Ireland at the moment. A border poll will not be supported in the current Irish governments 5-year term of office.
But if the SNP gets its referendum and wins, it will surely reignite the call for a border poll in Ireland. A key error by the nationalist party Sinn Fein was not to run enough candidates in the last Irish General election and it’s a mistake that they will not repeat next time.
While the current Irish coalition government of three political parties, Fine Gael, Fianna Fail and the Green party is holding, the stability of such a coalition cannot be guaranteed and history tells us that it may not survive its five-year term.
With Sinn Fein now the largest single political party in the Irish Parliament its influence is huge and a collapse of the current government could result in them sweeping into power. A border poll and a move towards a United Ireland would be top of the list for them
Sinn Fein also dominate the catholic vote in Northern Ireland and the party has seven seats in Westminster which they have consistently refused to take up.
The poll interviewed 2,390 voters in NI and some of the most interesting numbers come from the young people aged 18-44 where 47% were interested in a united Ireland versus 46 % who were against. When questioned on how likely a united Ireland is the numbers were at 48% to 44%.
As the demographics shift and more young people come of voting age and older voters die away there is a real and growing conviction that Northern Ireland will vote to join Ireland and a united Ireland may well become a reality. There will be few memories of the deadly troubles for all born in the last 23 years since the good Friday agreement was signed on 10 April 1998.
A united Ireland is bitterly opposed by the DUP. Leader, Arlene Foster, spoke after the poll was released saying that a border poll would be very divisive and reckless. She further added if there was a vote on Irish unity, the arguments for the union are “rational, logical, and they will win through”.
But Brexit has unleashed a gigantic genie from the bottle. The sunny uplands of business trading with the EU have turned into a nightmare of lost jobs, opportunities, and increased costs. For Northern Ireland who voted against Brexit, it’s the DUP who are being isolated by their very significant support for Brexit and are now trying to deal with the political and economic fall out
Their actions alone have done the most to support the case for a united Ireland. They have become the recruiting sergeant for the one thing that they are vehemently opposed to. If a united Ireland happens, the party who will have done the most to support is not Sinn Fein, it’s the DUP.
It’s nice to have friends in such high places isn’t it?
Bring on a United Ireland I say with great confidence and conviction, but it must happen with the full consent of the people.
Then the UK really will shrink.