Usually when national polls are done, on either voting or any other topic, Northern Ireland is not included. There are many reasons for this, most notably because Nord Iron’s party political system is very different and so thus asking them whether they want Labour or the Tories to have a majority in the House of Commons is in some senses much more complicated. So I was very interested to hear that the Belfast Telegraph decided to poll Northern Irish voters on the EU question.
It is usually assumed that everyone in the United Kingdom outside of England is a raving Europhile, so having that tested was bound to be revealing. The top line figures are REMAIN 56%, LEAVE 28%, DON’T KNOW 16%. So far, so Europe, but as usual with these things, it’s all down to the crosstabs. Unionists broke down like so: REMAIN 21%, LEAVE 54%, DON’T KNOW 25%. Hold on, you might be saying now if you’re handy with arithmetic: how can Remain be leading Leave across all of Northern Ireland two-to-one, while the Unionist vote is so pro-Leave? If this occurred to you, then you may well have guessed the answer already. The Nationalist vote was REMAIN 91%, LEAVE 8%, DON’T KNOW 1%.
The fact that Unionists don’t like the EU while Nationalists do isn’t particularly surprising. But looking at how stark the figures are does make me wonder if there isn’t another angle on why Brexit might cause the troubles to restart in Northern Ireland. Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minister, spoke at the CBI conference right after Cameron yesterday to say why the UK leaving the EU would be problematic for the peace process in Nord Iron. It mostly revolved around how the EU is an “important, perhaps underestimated, enabler of peace in Northern Ireland”. But looking at the poll numbers in the Belfast Telegraph, there is perhaps a simpler reason why Brexit might cause problems for peace in Northern Ireland: because if there is that much of a difference of opinion between Unionists and Nationalists, how would the Nationalists cope with being ejected from the EU while 90% of them wanted to stay? Thinking about this deeper makes me realise that just having the referendum at all could be tricky for Northern Ireland, but there’s not much we can do about that now.
What do I think? I’m loathe to be scaremongering and wish to try and be objective when considering this point. There are a lot of reasons why Brexit is a bad idea without having to dig deep into the well. I’m also not keen on making a scary prediction for what Brexit might bring, since the scariest thing about leaving the EU is that no one, whatsoever, can predict what would happen if Britain did so. However, those numbers did make me think there might really be something in the “Brexit = NI Troubles” argument. If Brexit would almost certainly see Scotland leave the Union, why wouldn’t the same move shake up Northern Ireland politics?