The EU referendum in Northern Ireland thankfully did not fall completely along sectarian lines as most things do, but unfortunately the reaction to it is beginning to. Particularly, the Ulster Unionists have chosen a Leader and set of candidates who for the most part voted “Leave”; and the SDLP is now trying to use Brexit as an excuse for a Border Poll in a way which makes cross-community campaigning on the issue nigh impossible. Only the Alliance Party, suggesting avoiding further division and working together to negotiate a specific deal reflective of Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances (those being default EU citizenship, larger trade with EU, land border, etc), makes any practical sense on the issue now.
To be clear, raising the constitutional issue outwith the term of the 1998 Agreement gets us nowhere. Nearly 20% of Northern Ireland’s exports are cross-border, but on the other hand it does over twice as much trade with England alone than with the entire rest of the EU combined. Regardless of constitutional aspiration, the simple fact is Northern Ireland cannot afford hard borders in either direction.
That, unfortunately, brings us to the reality that it won’t be political leadership but civic leadership which brings the best outcome the people of Northern Ireland. In practical, the Health Sector, business and higher educational institutions will need to work out a common and deliverable platform.
There should be no doubt that such a platform will be heard – Northern Ireland may be small, but it is in everyone’s interests to hear it and it has a voice in effect on both sides of the table. One benefit of its relative size is that it will in many ways be easier for the UK Government and European Council to go along with sensible proposals than not.
Sadly, a political system typified by prioritising a sectarian carve-up cannot deliver on Brexit, in much the same way as it cannot deliver on much else. However, Northern Ireland has never had so much civic interaction – that will be the key to making the best of Brexit.