Brexit's Identity Crisis Risks Opening Up Old Wounds in Belfast

  • Northern Ireland is more dependent on EU than rest of U.K.
  • Pro-British parties split over economics and identity

A painted British union flag is seen as people wait at a bus stop on the loyalist Shankill road in Belfast.

Photographer: Peter Muhly/AFP via Getty Images

As the rest of the United Kingdom argues about whether to stay in the European Union, in Northern Ireland the referendum risks reviving the kind of divisions the province has been trying to forget.

The economy is still fragile 18 years after the conflict over whether to be British or Irish officially ended, but a gamble on leaving the world’s largest trading bloc is still finding support in Belfast. The vote, driven by party politics in London, is in danger of retrenching rifts in a place where a violent history and vital financial aid make the stakes higher than anywhere else.

QuickTake Brexit

Ignoring the dynamic in Northern Ireland, whose frontier with Ireland is the only U.K. territory that adjoins the EU, “is complacent and dangerous,” said Edward Burke, lecturer in strategic studies at Portsmouth University. “A large part of the nationalist community have de facto accepted British sovereignty as they’ve been able to transpose their Irish identity over a soft border.”

Regional elections across the U.K. on Thursday may provide a taste of how the referendum on June 23 might play out and also highlight the currents in the Brexit debate that complicate matters for Northern Ireland.

Ulster’s Destiny

A vote to leave the EU could see the U.K. accelerate toward disintegration because Scotland would push for a fresh shot at independence. That could then jeopardize the consensus that has held Irish nationalist and pro-British unionist adversaries together in government in Belfast since the Good Friday peace agreement in 1998.

Parties that support reunification with the rest of Ireland like Sinn Fein are unequivocally in favor of remaining in the EU, even when they’ve been critical of it in the past. The pro-British, or unionist, side is split over whether the financial benefits of membership outweigh the loss of sovereignty that comes with it.

Also in the mix is Theresa Villiers, the minister responsible for Northern Ireland in the British government. She is one of four members of Prime Minister David Cameron’s 22-strong cabinet to advocate leaving the EU.

For David McNarry, the anti-EU U.K. Independence Party’s only representative in the Northern Ireland assembly, the Brexit debate is a chance to reassert an identity without any negative consequences for the economy.

“We have within the British community in Northern Ireland a profound liking for self-determination, and that means control of our own destiny,” McNarry said in an interview in Belfast. “And we certainly don’t want to put our future in the hands of Angela Merkel or Francois Hollande.”

Business Divide

With an economy roughly equivalent in size to that of Costa Rica, Northern Ireland is nevertheless particularly dependent on outsiders.

It has 1.8 million people and accounts for about 2 percent of British gross domestic product. At the same time, it stands to receive 3.5 billion euros ($4 billion) of EU subsidies between 2014 and 2020, including 230 million euros of so-called “peace” funding. At 57 percent of exports, the province also has greater reliance on EU trade than the rest of the U.K., not least because of its border with Ireland.

Large companies overwhelmingly back a vote to remain in the bloc, according to Nigel Smyth, the Confederation of British Industry’s chief in Belfast. They include Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier Inc., whose wing and fuselage factory close to where the Titanic was built in Belfast is the province’s biggest employer.

Other parts of the province are home to more skepticism. In Portavogie, a prawn fishing village an hour’s drive southeast from Belfast, trawlerman-turned-lobbyist Dick James argues that if Britain were to leave the EU, Northern Ireland won’t have to share its catch with crews from other states and have more to trade with the rest of the world.

“I see my role as trying to save the fleet from the worst of Brussels,” James said in his office, pointing to a harbor with fewer than half boats it had in the 1980s.

Opposing Sides

Reconciling those economic and existential arguments has opened up a cleavage among the unionists and galvanized the nationalists, the two opposing sides in the 30 year conflict known as the “Troubles.”

The larger Democratic Unionist Party advocates a “leave” vote. Evangelical preacher Ian Paisley, who founded the DUP, once implied the euro had been prophesied in the Book of Revelation as a sign of the end of time.

The smaller Ulster Unionist Party, once dominant, is backing “remain,” aiming to preserve two unions: the European one and the three-centuries-old United Kingdom. Across the water, Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon has already said a Brexit vote would prompt fresh calls for a new referendum on breaking away from the rest of the U.K.

“If there is a Brexit but Scotland were to remain, how does the union survive?” said Mike Nesbitt, a former TV presenter and now leader of the UUP. “As a unionist I don’t want my prints on a button that Nicola Sturgeon might press to bring about the end of the United Kingdom.”

Sinn Fein, which backed the armed campaign against the British presence in Northern Ireland, also supports the EU, but for opposite reasons: it sees it as a community of nations that may one day help achieve a united Ireland.

“It’s bad enough that we have the partition of Ireland, but we’d have an EU border right in the heart of the country,” said Martina Anderson, a Sinn Fein member of the European Parliament. “A Brexit is going to harden that border.”

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