Post-Brexit Britain may not want to pay for Northern Ireland

English voters overwhelmingly want their money spent in England, not in the North

The UK exchequer provides a £10.8 billion (€12.1 billion) annual subsidy to Northern Ireland and pays £8.6 billion net each year to the European Union.

The two figures show a striking disproportion between the UK's internal and external obligations just as the Irish backstop becomes the defining issue in its future relations with the EU. The disproportion is mostly unknown to the British public who voted 52/48 per cent in 2016 for Brexit based in good part on the belief that the cost of EU membership is far higher than it actually is and that its intrusion on UK policymaking is similarly large.

Given the immense strain Brexit is putting on the UK’s internal unity, this disproportionate funding is a really serious matter. The latest Future of England Survey organised by researchers in Edinburgh and Cardiff universities asked voters in each of the UK’s nations whether they prioritise a hard Brexit over a hard border in Ireland. Richard Wyn Jones, one of its authors, summarised the findings:

“An overwhelming majority of Conservative voters in England would prefer to see Scotland become independent and a breakdown of the peace process in Northern Ireland rather than compromise on their support for Brexit. But it’s not just Brexit. Half of English Conservative supporters want to stop Scottish MPs from sitting in the British cabinet altogether.”

In other notable findings, voters typically expect higher levels of policy alignment with Europe post-Brexit on issues such as roaming charges and food hygiene standards than within the UK. English voters say by 62/38 per cent they want money raised in England to be spent there and not in Northern Ireland. That view is held by 73/28 per cent among Conservative voters whereas among those voting Labour it is 22/78 per cent.

‘Union’s demise’

Wyn Jones concludes: “Strident protestations of faith in the future of the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from Theresa May and her leading ministers cannot hide the fact that the union is under huge stress as result of Brexit. Ironically, that threat is posed at least as much by those who would regard themselves as unionists as it is by those in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who actively wish the union’s demise.”

Leave supporters in Northern Ireland value a hard Brexit over the peace process and a soft border by 87 per cent

The surveys reveal what Wyn Jones calls a “devo-anxiety” among English voters. It reflects in part an English nationalism both resenting and seeking greater voice in the devolving UK. That nationalism can be overstated as an independent force but it undoubtedly drives much of this disenchantment.

Leave supporters in Northern Ireland value a hard Brexit over the peace process and a soft border by 87 per cent, illustrating their DUP base. But for the DUP to put such store on avoiding a border down the Irish Sea, given the fraying of popular unionism at the base of Conservatives in England, risks bringing these diminishing solidarities and radically disproportionate UK transfers to Northern Ireland out into the open in future UK-level bargaining.

Intra-UK solidarity is much stronger among ordinary Labour voters in England than among Conservatives. What that would mean for a possible Labour government arising from Brexit remains to be seen: could it outweigh or counter-balance the Labour leadership’s sympathy for Irish nationalism? Overall non-Conservative voters in England support the UK’s union much more than Tory-Brexit ones.

Economic price

That union would probably have more chance of survival, renewal or civilised voluntary disintegration if Brexit is softer or reversed in a second referendum. This survey bears out the view of commentators who say the end of the UK is more likely to come from the secession of an England no longer prepared to pay the political or economic price of union than from Scottish (or Northern Irish) voters who still have other options.

The Brexit convulsion brings the Irish Question right back into mainstream British politics more intrusively even than during the Northern Ireland Troubles culminating in the 1998 Belfast Agreement. One has to go back 100 years to the December 14th, 1918, general election after the first World War won by unionists and Sinn Féin in Ireland to find it so prominent – and resented.

Lloyd George is widely respected in the UK for having eliminated Ireland from internal British politics by the 1920 partition and the 1921 Irish Treaty. Now that it is back, can one imagine future red buses going around England after the economic shock of a hard Brexit with the slogan: “We send NI £204 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead. Vote Leave”?