Henry Jarrett | Brexit: A constitutional issue for Northern Ireland’s electorate?By Jelena Loncar on 30 June 2016
Brexit: A constitutional issue for Northern Ireland’s electorate?
Author: Henry Jarrett (University of Exeter)
A few days prior to the general election in the United Kingdom last year, I wrote a piece for the PSA Irish Politics specialist group’s blog analysing if the stances of Northern Ireland’s political parties on a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union were being influenced by their constitutional positions (/psa-communities/specialist-groups/irish-politics-group/blog/uk%E2%80%99s-eu-membership-ethno-national-debate). Though ultimately inconclusive, it argued that unionist parties may use a referendum to encourage a ‘Leave’ vote which, if realised, would create a greater political distance between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Conversely, nationalist parties may campaign for a ‘Remain’ vote to maintain, and perhaps strengthen, ties between the two entities using the EU. While my initial piece asked whether the then possible referendum was a constitutional issue for Northern Ireland’s political parties, this asks whether it was a constitutional issue for Northern Ireland’s voters and poses the following question: did the electorate vote based on their ethno-national identity?
Before proceeding, it is worth noting that my initial piece examined the stances of political parties on whether there should be a referendum, as prior to the general election last year there was no guarantee that one would take place. In short, the Democratic Unionist Party and the Ulster Unionist Party were broadly supportive of one, while Sinn Fein, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, and the Alliance Party were largely opposed. This piece will use the results of the referendum from Northern Ireland to analyse whether unionists voted for Brexit and nationalists voted to remain. It should be emphasised that this examination is based solely on these results, demographics in Northern Ireland and my own opinions, and is in no way intended to be a chapter and verse analysis. Such a study would require far more research to be conducted.
Looking at a map of how Northern Ireland voted, one thing is immediately striking: for the most part, the predominantly unionist area east of the River Bann is the colour blue of ‘Leave’, while the majority nationalist area west of the river is the colour yellow of ‘Remain’ (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/politics/eu_referendum/results). This would initially suggest that, by and large, unionists voted for Brexit and nationalists voted to remain in the EU. There are of course several anomalies, however. First, Belfast West and South Down, both in the east of Northern Ireland, voted ‘Remain’. This, though, is easily explained by both areas having significant nationalist majorities. Further anomalies are Belfast North and Belfast South voting to remain. These are both mixed areas and, in the case of the former, the margin was very slim (50.4% to 49.6%). In Belfast South the division was more stark (69.5% to 30.5%), although this is generally thought of as one of the most cosmopolitan and diverse areas of Northern Ireland, which may explain the strong support for ‘Remain’. Perhaps the most significant anomalies are North Down and East Londonderry, both majority unionist areas, voting ‘Remain’. Further research is necessary in order to determine the reasons behind this, although both cases may be explained by the higher than average education of their populations, which, it has been suggested, is an indicator for higher levels of support for ‘Remain’ across the UK (http://blogs.ft.com/ftdata/2016/06/24/brexit-demographic-divide-eu-referendum-results/).
It is also important to consider the share of the vote and compare it with demographics in Northern Ireland. The outcome of the referendum was 55.8% for ‘Remain’ and 44.2% for ‘Leave’. At the last census in 2011, 48% identified as Protestant and 45% as Catholic (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-20673534). These latter figures are somewhat in line with the 48% support for unionist parties and 36% support for nationalist parties at the 2016 Northern Ireland Assembly election (http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/globalassets/documents/raise/publications/2016-2021/2016/general/3616.pdf). When analysing whether unionists voted to leave and nationalists voted to remain in the EU, it is clear that the numbers do not entirely add up, as a majority opted to remain despite nationalists not making up the majority of Northern Ireland’s population. One possible explanation for this is voter turnout, of which Northern Ireland had the lowest of the UK’s four constituent countries, at 62.9%. Although far more research into this would need to be conducted to reach a certain conclusion, it may be the case that turnout was higher amongst nationalists than unionists. This would go some way to explaining why East Londonderry, with one of the lowest turnouts in Northern Ireland, voted ‘Remain’.
As aforementioned, this piece is not intended to provide a conclusion to whether unionists voted for Brexit and nationalists voted ‘Remain’. It has, however, offered some early insight into this. There is no doubt that majority unionist areas were more likely to vote ‘Leave’ and majority nationalist areas more likely to vote ‘Remain’. It is possible that this was driven at least in part by the constitutional positions of a unionist desire to distance Northern Ireland politically from the Irish Republic and the wish of nationalists to maintain ties between the two entities.
The impact of Brexit will perhaps be greater in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the UK. PEACE programmes for reconciliation are partly funded by the EU, and the Good Friday Agreement was sold to nationalists using the argument that the importance of national borders is diminished as both the UK and the Republic of Ireland are EU member states. The prospect of an EU land border on the island of Ireland is now very real, along with everything that may come with it, notably immigration checks, which have long been absent for British and Irish citizens. Greater research into the referendum result in Northern Ireland is paramount to our understanding of how unionists and nationalists perceive and engage with the EU.