Loyalties are divided among Irish republicans over the ‘Brexit’ referendum as a new battle over Britain’s place in Europe brings the potential for a period of significant political change in Ireland and Britain.
Irish voters in the Six Counties and in Britain are being urged to back Britain’s continuing membership of the European Union by all the major political parties in Ireland, including Sinn Fein. However, some republicans have argued that a vote to quit the EU could provide an opportunity to build a new political dynamic around Irish sovereignty.
None doubt that a vote to leave Europe is certain to bring new pressure for an independence referendum in Scotland, where there is a majority in favour of remaining in the EU. Former Scottish Nationalist leader and First Minister Alex Salmond said this week his successor Nicola Sturgeon has “a democratic mandate” to propose another referendum if there is a “material change in circumstances”, such as Scotland being taken out of the European Union.
Sinn Fein has said that a referendum in Ireland should also follow, presenting this alongside a call for new ways of thinking about Irish unity.
Most polls suggest that voters backing ‘Leave’ are concentrated in the English regions and will be outnumbered by support for remaining in the EU among those in the north of Ireland, Wales, Scotland and London. However, a first attempt by a polling company to include likely voters this week produced a shock 10% majority for ‘Leave’, inducing an apparent panic at Downing Street. That has spilled over in Ireland, with the 26 County Taoiseach Enda Kenny now featuring prominently in efforts to support the ‘Remain’ campaign and will appear alongside David CAmeron at a pro-EU press conference later today.
Irish voters have been targeted with warnings over the future impact on the peace process and on cross-border trade. Other efforts by the ‘Remain’ campaign have seen pleas by former rock star Bob Geldof and former British Direct Ruler Peter Mandelson, as well as a joint visit to Ireland this week by two former British Prime Ministers. Speaking to students at Ulster University, John Major said it would be a “historic mistake” to do anything that would undermine the status quo in Ireland, while Tony Blair said Europe was an “important part of the context” in the peace process.
Meanwhile, Enda Kenny directly appealed to hundreds of thousands of Irish people living in Britain to vote to remain in the EU.
“Ireland in Europe would still stand by Britain being a member of the union and of its importance, but I have no idea [how] other European countries ... would look at Britain whether they decide to leave, given the fact that we’ve come a long way since the 1970s,” said Ireland’s taoiseach, as he attended a Gaelic Athletic Association football match in north-west London.
“So whether there would be border controls or custom controls, these things are a possibility, but obviously they would require some very serious negotiations and my preference for the Irish electorate who have a significant part in this referendum is to vote to stay, for Britain to stay as a strong and central member of the European Union for the future.”
Warnings over the possibility of future controls on the border have been the subject of claim and counter-claim. With Britain almost certain to remain in the European Economic Area due to a pro-EU majority at Westminster, any future custom controls should be very limited, probably taking the form of sporadic checks on heavy goods vehicles. But there have also been warnings by one legal expert that the concern over illegal immigration could eventually wreck the common travel area on the two islands, and that people might soon require passports to cross the Irish border.
Thirty Irish business figures and celebrities in Britain including former Goldman Sachs boss CEO Peter Sutherland wrote an open letter to urge the Irish to back the Remain side, while the 26 County foreign minister, Charlie Flanagan, visited members of the Irish community in Liverpool and Manchester.
Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said a Vote Leave victory and a subsequent hardening of the border would have “very profound consequences for business on the island of Ireland.”
“It wouldn’t just be an economic border, it would be a physical border to check for people who are variously described as refugees or economic migrants - that would be ridiculous,” he said.
But a leading Irish economist has suggested that a British exit from the European Union could lead to Scottish independence -- and a united Ireland.
“Ethnically, without Scotland, the union of Northern Ireland and a multicultural but nationalistic little England is not particularly coherent,” David McWilliams wrote.
“With Brexit looming and the concrete and more profound underlying changes in demography, the issue of a united Ireland may be back on the table quicker than most of us imagined - or cared to dread.”
Sinn Fein has nailed its colours firmly to the pro-EU mast by urging its supporters to vote ‘remain’ on June 23.
Launching the party’s ‘Putting Ireland First - Vote Remain’ campaign in Belfast, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said a ‘Brexit’ would be bad for Irish businesses and farmers, as well as a setback for human rights and workers’ rights.
“The European Union is far from perfect but the only way to address that and change it is from within,” Mr McGuinness said.
The Foyle MLA said many aspects of society in the north had received support from Brussels, including the community groups, businesses and the farming sector.
“We cannot allow the narrow interests of a section of the Tory party, which was not elected by the people of the north, to take us out of Europe and set our political agenda,” he said.
Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson said a Brexit would be “disastrous for Ireland north and south”.
“We in the north, would be shackled to a Britain with a hostile, hawkish Tory government, wedded to the failed policies of austerity - a peripheral region of a peripheral state on the periphery of Europe,” she said.
Meanwhile, Republican socialist group Eirigi is campaigning in favour of ‘Leave’.
Eirigi’s national chairman Brian Leeson said his party wanted to reassert Irish independence and sovereignty within the island of Ireland and to bring as much power and democracy back to Ireland as possible.”
“Our core argument is that the Irish people’s needs are best served by full independence and control of our own destiny,” he said.
“Obviously partition interferes with the right of the Irish people to control our own destiny - but there is also a massive democratic deficit at the heart of the European Union.”
It was also concerned by a “move towards the militarisation” of the EU, he added.
Mr Leeson said there were two states preventing Irish people enjoying 32-county national self-determination. “One is the British state and the other is, essentially, what is the EU state. There is an opportunity here to potentially end one of those external interferences and then we can start working on the other,” he added.