Northern Ireland is often thought of as a place apart in UK politics. That may be why it hasn’t received much attention in the coverage of the EU referendum. That inattention is probably a mistake. While Northern Ireland only had 1.2m registered voters in 2014 (about 3% of the UK’s more than 40m), those ballots could make the difference in a close referendum.
Northern Ireland is the most pro-Remain of the UK’s 12 regions, with a 30-point lead in polling for continued EU membership rather than Brexit. It is also home to the UK’s only land border with Europe. There is significant concern that border controls and custom checks would be introduced between the Republic of Ireland and the North if the UK left the European Union.
All this logically points to a vote to remain in the EU. But this debate is proving to be less about logic and more about identity – particularly in Northern Ireland.
The logical argument
At first glance, the economic arguments would appear to be decisive. Northern Ireland has been one of the greatest beneficiaries of EU support, not only in the UK but throughout the continent. It has even received more than €1 billion from a special fund set up specifically to support peace between the North and the Republic of Ireland. The region is also more reliant than the rest of the UK on the EU as an export market. It is therefore more likely to suffer from any new restrictions on access to trade.
The potential damage to Northern Ireland’s economic development, still fragile after decades of conflict, could explain the current lead for Remain among voters. However, there are some numbers that indicate the advantage may not be a stable one.
Among those who are nationalist (who see Northern Ireland as part of Ireland) 80% back Remain. But among those who see themselves as unionist (and part of the UK), only 18% want to stay in the EU.
If concern about the economy was the prime motive for voters’ decisions, one would not expect such a large gap between the two groups. Instead, there appears to be something essential about identifying as a unionist or nationalist that explains the difference.
A matter of identity
For a Northern Ireland nationalist, the ability to move across the border with the Republic feeds into the notion of a single “Ireland”, even if this may never be a constitutional reality. And free movement across that border is part of a conception of being part of Europe, rather than separate from it.
Brexit would complicate the relationship with the Republic. Irish prime minister, Enda Kenny, has already said that trade and co-operation with Northern Ireland would be disrupted by a verdict for Leave.
And for unionists, you would think the stakes are even higher. Leaving the EU could revive the debate over separating Northern Ireland from the UK. A campaign for independence could be boosted by the one likely to come out of Scotland. That’s not a debate this group wants to have.
However, Northern Ireland’s unionism does not just turn on legal status within the UK. The governing Democratic Unionist Party promotes a very traditional vision of the UK – and that vision frames the EU as bureaucratic and interfering. To the DUP, like so many other eurosceptic groups, the EU is an obstacle to British “common sense”.
The party is especially critical of the European Court of Justice and wary of the EU’s liberal approach to LGBT rights.
Perhaps most importantly, this particular version of unionism and its values conceives of the EU as alien. There is no concept of a shared identity tying Northern Ireland — or at least the unionist Northern Ireland — to the European mainland if not via the UK.
A lesson from Belfast
So Northern Ireland offers an important lesson for June 23. The region puts a priority on nationalism over the economy – whether that’s a nationalism connected to Ireland and Europe or one tied to a UK and separate from Europe.
Albeit for distinctive historical reasons, the Northern Irish debate is a microcosm of the wider Brexit campaign. The near-universal conclusion that Brexit will damage Britain’s economic future is only influencing a minority of voters. “Being British” has become the central theme for the Leave campaign and it seems to be having a far greater impact.
Remain may have triumphed with economic models, but it has struggled to offer a vision of Britishness which is compatible with EU membership. It is not enough to say that if you love Britain, you will not put its economy at risk.
Can those who see the benefits of the UK’s future within Europe – and the disaster that would follow from being outside it – find a message of identity to swing the vote in the next week?
It could start by reclaiming images of the world wars, presenting them not as moments in which Britain stood apart from everyone else, but as examples of how it worked with other countries in the interests of security and progress.
It is this terrain rather than the dry (albeit important) landscape of economic statistics, that will be decisive for the UK – and Northern Ireland.