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How Northern Ireland voted in the EU referendum – and what it means for border talks

As the UK seeks to negotiate its way out of the European Union, one particularly thorny problem to grapple with will be the nature of the border the UK will have with the EU, and specifically how this will affect Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Should the border lie between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, restoring the old border created by the partition of Ireland? Or should it be placed between Great Britain and Ireland, along the Irish Sea? Should arrangements be permanent or temporary? How hard or soft should the border be: electronic, policed or militarised?

Crucially, how much legitimacy does each possible border scenario have among the population? Would a significant proportion of the Northern Irish Protestant community find any border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland unacceptable? Would a hardened border between North and South suffer a similar legitimacy deficit among Northern Irish Catholics?

The Westminster-based Brexit negotiators are keenly focused on the economics of potential trading relationships and the nuts and bolts of different possible immigration systems. In that context, questions about Northern Ireland may struggle for equal billing. But they are highly potent, and have been recognised by the EU-27 as one of the main topics for discussion.

How Northern Ireland voted

Reflecting on how Northern Ireland citizens actually voted in the referendum provides a useful departure point for considering what to do about this problem. Examining data from the 2016 Northern Ireland Assembly election study, conducted close to the time of the referendum, it emerges that there was a very strong ethnonational basis to voting. It seems 85% of Catholics voted Remain, compared to only 40% of Protestants.

The differences are even starker when one considers how the respondents described their own ideological position and identity. Of those who identified as nationalists, 88% voted Remain, compared to only 34% of those who described themselves as unionists. And 87% of “Irish” respondents voted Remain compared to only 37% of “British” respondents. That said, voting was not only ethnonational. Both Protestants and Catholics were split – though Protestants were much more polarised.

Sinn Fein campaigned for Remain. PA

As well as the potent ethnonational basis to voting in the referendum, there is also evidence, similar to that reported in Britain, that voting Leave was associated with people seen as being left behind by globalisation (working class, less skilled and educated voters with socially conservative views). The “winners” of the globalisation process (young, educated, skilled multi-culturalists) supported Remain. For example, 80% of Northern Ireland citizens with a postgraduate qualification and 71% of those with a degree voted Remain. Fewer than half of those citizens with GCSE qualifications or below did the same.

And as in Britain, there was also a strong relationship between how people viewed immigration and how they voted. While 85% of those who strongly agreed that “immigration has been good for Northern Ireland’s economy and society” voted Remain, only 24% of those who strongly disagreed did the same. A similar, albeit slightly less strong, relationship exists between opposing homosexuality and voting to leave.

What is intriguing is how these two explanations of voting – the ethnonational and the “left behind” theses – interact. It emerges that Catholics are quite homogenous in their pro-Remain disposition. There was little variation between how working class, less well-educated Catholics voted compared to middle class, better-educated Catholics.

In contrast, the “left behind” argument is much better at explaining variation in Protestant voting behaviour. Higher-skilled and educated Protestants were much more likely than lower-skilled, lower-educated Protestants to vote Remain. There is almost no difference between how Catholics who went to grammar school and those who didn’t voted. But Protestants who didn’t go to grammar school were much more likely to vote Leave than those who did.

Giving the people their say

This evidence shows that Catholics were quite uniform in their support for remaining in the EU – an important finding for the future. If it’s decided that a border between North and South is going to be strictly imposed, can it be done in a way that does not undermine the Catholic/nationalist sense of connection with the rest of Ireland? Alongside the logistical questions – about the technology needed to manage such a porous border – lie these equally important identity issues.

If, on the other hand, logistics make a sea border the more workable option, can it be put into effect without alienating the relatively working class and less-educated Protestants/unionists who voted for the UK to leave the EU but undoubtedly did not imagine they were voting for Northern Ireland to become distinct from the rest of the UK?

Using animation to enhance public and policy community understanding of the EU referendum in Northern Ireland.

Popular legitimacy is at the heart of political stability. With the absence of a stable executive in Northern Ireland to provide a clear voice on these issues, citizens arguably need to take up a new role. They may need to feed directly into Brexit decision making. With that in mind, we’ll be holding a series of citizen assemblies in Northern Ireland to generate systematic evidence to inform the process.

Citizens will learn about, and will consider the relative merits of, each of the different border options and will then indicate how acceptable they feel each option is. This crucial information could prove vital for negotiators who seek a border resolution that is regarded as legitimate by citizens and minimises risks to political stability.

This article has also been published by The UK in a Changing Europe

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