Northern Ireland: understanding the Brexit vote and its implications for the border

 

Theresa May’s decision to call a snap election, essentially to try and secure a more solid mandate to negotiate the UK’s exit from the EU, has triggered an election campaign in which the challenges of the Brexit negotiators will be a central feature.

One particularly thorny problem for the post-election negotiating team to grapple with is the nature of the border the UK will have with the EU, and specifically how this will affect Northern Ireland and Ireland. Should the border lie between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, restoring the old border created by the partition of Ireland? Or should it be placed between Great Britain and Ireland, along the Irish Sea? Should such arrangements be permanent or temporary? How ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ should the border be: electronic, policed or militarised?

Crucially, how much legitimacy does each possible border scenario have among the population? Would a significant proportion of the Northern Irish Protestant community find any border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland unacceptable? Would a hardened border between North and South suffer a similar legitimacy deficit among Northern Irish Catholics? Might there be different borders: a customs border delimited by water, a security border delimited by land and water?

With the Westminster-based Brexit negotiators keenly focused on the economics of potential trading relationships, on the nuts and bolts of different possible immigration systems, and on their relations to the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the EU, questions related to Northern Ireland may struggle for equal billing. But they are highly potent, and have been recognized by the EU-27’s proposed ‘baskets’ to be discussed in the UK’s secession from the EU.

Reflecting on how Northern Ireland citizens actually voted in the referendum provides a useful departure point for considering these border related challenges. Examining data from the 2016 Northern Ireland Assembly Election Study survey, conducted close to the time of the referendum, it emerges that there was a very strong ‘ethnonational’ basis to voting: 85 per cent of Catholics voted ‘remain’ compared to only 40 per cent of Protestants.

These differences are even starker when one considers how the respondents described their own ideological position and national identity: 88 per cent of ‘nationalists’ compared to only 34 per cent of ‘unionists’ voted remain; and 87 per cent of ‘Irish’ respondents compared to only 37 per cent of ‘British’ respondents voted ‘remain’. Nevertheless, voting was not only ethnonational: both Protestants and Catholics were split, though Protestants were much more polarized.

As well as the potent ethnonational basis to voting in the referendum, there is also evidence, similar to that reported in Britain, that voting ‘leave’ was associated with those ‘left behind’ by globalisation (working class, less skilled and educated voters with socially conservative views) while the ‘winners’ of the globalisation process (young, educated, skilled multi-culturalists) supported remain.

For example, 80 per cent of Northern Ireland citizens with a postgraduate qualification and 71 per cent of those with a degree voted ‘remain’ compared to less than half of those citizens with GCSE qualifications or less. People who attended a grammar school were also more likely to vote remain than people who did not attend.

Similar to data from Britain there was also a strong relationship between holding anti-immigrant views and voting ‘leave’: 85 per cent of those who strongly agree that ‘immigration has been good for Northern Ireland’s economy and society’ voted remain, compared to only 24 per cent of those who strongly disagree. A similar, albeit slightly less strong, relationship exists between opposing homosexuality and voting to leave.

What is intriguing is how these two explanations of voting – the ethnonational and the ‘left behind’ theses – interact with each other. It emerges that Catholics are quite homogenous in their pro-remain disposition, with little variation between how working class, less well-educated Catholics voted compared to middle class, better educated Catholics. In contrast, the ‘left behind’ argument is much better at explaining variation in Protestant voting behaviour.

Higher skilled and educated Protestants were much more likely than lower skilled, lower educated Protestants to vote remain. This is illustrated in Figure 1. There is almost no difference between how ‘grammar school’ Catholics and non-grammar school Catholics voted, but a much greater propensity for non-grammar school Protestants to vote ‘leave’, compared to grammar school Protestants.

This evidence shows that Catholics were quite uniform in their support for remaining in the EU – an important finding for the future.  If it is decided that a border between North and South is going to be reimposed and this has to be strictly organised with respect to goods and/or persons, can this be done in a way that does not undermine the Catholic/nationalist sense of connection with the rest of Ireland? Alongside the logistical questions – about the technology needed to effectively manage such a porous border – lie these equally important identity issues.

If, on the other hand, it emerges that logistics and technology push decision makers into locating the organised border along the Irish Sea, can this be put into effect without alienating the relatively working class and less educated Protestants/unionists who voted for the UK to leave the EU but undoubtedly did not imagine they were voting for Northern Ireland to become distinct from the rest of the UK?

Popular legitimacy is at the heart of political stability. With the absence of a stable executive in Northern Ireland to provide a clear voice on these issues, there is arguably a necessary role for citizens’ considered views to feed directly into the policy making process. The authors, along with other colleagues in Queen’s (Rhiannon Turner and Kevin McNicholl), Nottingham Trent University (Clifford Stevenson) and University College Dublin (David Farrell) will be conducting deliberative exercises in Northern Ireland on the border issue to generate systematic evidence to inform border related decision making.

The research project, entitled The Post-Brexit UK/Ireland Border and the Stability of Peace and Security in Northern Ireland – Evidence for Policy Makers from two Deliberative Democracy exercises, is funded by The UK in a Changing Europe and the ESRC.

Our deliberative exercises are in the form of Citizens’ Assemblies made up of a representative cross section of the Northern Ireland population. The deliberating citizens will learn about, and will consider the relative merits of, each of the different border options and will then indicate how acceptable they feel each option is. This work will be conducted in autumn and will build upon previous work conducted by the team using deliberative democracy to inform debate on sensitive issues in Northern Ireland.

By John Garry, Professor of Political Behaviour at Queen’s University Belfast, John Coakley Professor of Politics at Queen’s University Belfast and Emeritus Professor at University College Dublin and Brendan O’Leary is Professor of Politics at Queen’s University Belfast and Lauder Professor of Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania. Co-published with The Conversation.

Disclaimer:
The views expressed in this analysis post are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the UK in a Changing Europe initiative.

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