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Northern Ireland prepares to enter a post-Brexit quagmire

Calm before the storm. Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Unlike the UK as a whole, Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU – and now it finds itself in a deep political and economic tangle.

The Northern Irish Remain vote had been anticipated, and as expected, support was strongest in border areas and in Belfast. But the margin of victory for the Remain camp was rather tighter than opinion polls had suggested, with Remain on 55.8% to Leave’s 44.2%.

The political fallout has already started. As soon as results indicated that a Leave vote was likely Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, the deputy first minister, called for an all-Ireland vote on unification, a so-called “border poll”.

This will be furiously resisted by unionists, but the call has nonetheless been made. It can only dial up the tensions in Northern Ireland’s power-sharing Executive, in which the Democratic Unionist Party, Northern Ireland’s largest party, shares power with Sinn Féin.

The result challenges the executive and Northern Ireland in general on several other fronts. Northern Ireland will need to decide what interests it wants to see defended in the withdrawal negotiations and safeguarded under whatever new relationship replaces the UK’s membership. That debate simply has not been had, and the Leave campaign was essentially silent on the issue.

Strikingly, the draft programme for government issued after this year’s assembly elections doesn’t refer to the referendum, much less the possibility of the UK leaving the EU. That will have to change.

There is also the question of how exactly Northern Ireland will get its interests onto the negotiating table. London will be obliged to listen to its views, just as it will have to listen to the views of the other devolved administrations, but will it actually take them forward?

George Osborne campaigning in Northern Ireland. Niall Carson/PA

In the overall context of the UK-wide vote, the outcome matters little. However the result and the prospect of the UK leaving the EU open up a multitude of questions and challenges for Northern Ireland.

Concerns have long been expressed over what leaving the EU could mean for Northern Ireland’s economy. Forecasts suggest that the effects will be negative, at least in the short and medium-term – and under most scenarios to be greater than for most of the rest of the UK. Time will tell, but even Leave supporters acknowledge that there will be some short-term economic pain.

Together and apart

The question of what Brexit would mean for the border that Northern Ireland shares with the Republic of Ireland did come up during the campaign.

Both sides predictably offered different prognoses, but even some pro-Brexit voices acknowledged that the status quo could not be sustained, regardless of the Common Travel Area arrangements between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.

The UK’s withdrawal means that in all probability, the current “soft” border between Ireland’s two parts, barely detectable to those crossing it, will have to become “harder”. Some forms of border control will have to be introduced to monitor and regulate the movement of people and of goods.

If the border on the island of Ireland is not made harder, then it could be that the Great Britain will become the de facto border, at least for immigration purposes. Taken to its fullest extent, this would require UK citizens living in Northern Ireland to go through passport controls on entering England, Scotland or Wales, just as they would if they were entering from outside the UK.

The Leave vote poses many questions, and for Northern Ireland they are particularly challenging. They also have the potential to be extremely divisive – a raw deal indeed for a region that voted to Remain.

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