Graham Gudgin: There is no prospect of the North being allowed stay in the EU

Ulster unionists will sigh with a weary recognition of yet another scheme to ease Northern Ireland out of the UK without democratic approval

The reality is that both the Dublin and Belfast Governments will be very keen to keep the border as open as possible. It is unlikely that controls on personal movements will be introduced, and certain that no trains will be stopped as Fintan O’Toole suggested recently. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

The reality is that both the Dublin and Belfast Governments will be very keen to keep the border as open as possible. It is unlikely that controls on personal movements will be introduced, and certain that no trains will be stopped as Fintan O’Toole suggested recently. (Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images)

 

Much has made recently of the fact that Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. In the UK as a whole, 52 per cent voted to leave but in Northern Ireland 56 per cent voted to remain. Claims have been made that Northern Ireland therefore has a right to remain in the EU, and calls have been made for the Irish Government to campaign for this outcome. A surge in applications for Irish passports in Northern Ireland has been reported and some British newspapers have speculated the vote makes a united Ireland more likely. Is this just post-referendum froth?

Part of the excitement has been generated by parallels with Scotland where 62 voted to remain and the SNP government has called for a new referendum on independence. Or rather it has called for a referendum to be “on the table”. This means a referendum sometime, but not yet. The SNP is playing a delicate game, wishing to keep the idea of a second referendum alive but knowing a referendum called soon would be lost by a large margin, thus killing the hope of Scottish independence, probably for ever.

The reason is the world oil price. The last Scottish independence vote was lost in 2014 when the oil price was $100 a barrel and Scottish finances might have just about weathered the loss of financial support from England. At the current and likely future oil price of $50, there would be a gaping £5 billion hole in Scottish finances, equivalent to half the education budget. The higher taxes to fill this gap would cost a couple with two children £4,000 a year.

Cost of exit

With the likelihood Scotland will remain within the UK and hence outside the EU, can there be any real expectation Northern Ireland could remain within the EU? There is no possibility a UK government would support this. Nor is there a possibility the EU would countenance adding a single detached region to its 27 member states. There is no recognised “right” for Northern Ireland to remain in the EU, and the pro-Brexit Northern Ireland secretary of state Theresa Villiers has scotched the idea Northern Ireland could put a legal block on the UK leaving the EU.

Ulster unionists will sigh with a weary recognition of yet another scheme to ease the North out of the UK without democratic approval, but they will oppose it as they have opposed all such moves. My estimate is that three-quarters of unionists supported Brexit.

Assembly thinking

Arlene FosterNorthern Ireland Assembly

Northern Ireland as a whole supported Remain because the overwhelming majority of nationalists who opposed Brexit were joined by most Alliance voters and perhaps half of middle-class unionists. Even so, it remains unlikely any change would occur in the position in which virtually all Protestants and half of Catholics support Northern Ireland remaining in the UK. The reasons are again economic.

While net financial support via Brussels is tiny, support from London is enormous. This finances half of all public spending in Northern Ireland and is worth £20,000 a year to a couple with two children.

The one practical issue that will concern many is whether the Border can remain open. The reality is that both the Dublin and Belfast governments will be very keen to keep the Border as open as possible. It is unlikely controls on personal movements will be introduced, and certain no trains will be stopped as Fintan O’Toole suggested recently.

Villiers has said she expects the Border to remain open. The UK has several lines of defence against illegal immigration. For migrants seeking to work in the UK, the issue of national insurance numbers is one. Enforcement of rules against employing illegal migrants is another, and can be strengthened. These controls may well be sufficient, but passport checks on movement from Northern Ireland to Britain might also be introduced. Each time I fly to or from Northern Ireland I show my passport. A driving licence would do, but most passengers show passports.

None of this causes anything more than minimal inconvenience, and I have never observed any complaint. Such controls will initially raise some unionist eyebrows but their necessity will be accepted.

Graham Gudgin is senior research associate at the Centre for Business Research, Judge Business School, University of Cambridge. He was formerly special adviser to first minister David Trimble from 1998-2002

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