Reconciling ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’: Northern Ireland and the EU Referendum

Friday, July 14, 2017
East Quad Lecture Theatre (University of Glasgow)
Mary Murphy , Government, University College Cork
The UK referendum decision to leave the European Union (EU) in June 2016 exposes a marked political, ideological, socio-economic, demographic and geographic divisions across the UK., Scotland, Northern Ireland and London voted to Remain. Interestingly however, the unionist and nationalist communities in Northern Ireland did not vote homogenously (as has traditionally been the case) in this referendum. Although nationalists were more likely to vote Remain, approximately one third of unionists also did. Given Northern Ireland’s history of conflict, this vote  demonstrates some unity of preference across the political divide. The legitimacy of Northern Ireland’s vote however, is challenged by the fact that it conflicts with the overall UK wide vote. This begs questions about how to accommodate legitimate regional democratic preferences with the broader contrasting national context, and also during negotiations between the UK and the EU. For all the recent political progress in Northern Ireland, the region still remains politically vulnerable. That vulnerability may be challenged if the EU referendum result is not handled sensitively and creatively. This paper examines how political leaders and policy actors in various settings (i.e. Northern Ireland, UK, Republic of Ireland and the EU) might achieve accountability to the Northern Ireland majority while respecting the national legitimacy of the overall vote. The use of creative and constructive ambiguity, and agreement on ‘special’ arrangements for Northern Ireland vis-à-vis the Republic of Ireland post-Brexit may be the most effective means of securing stability and responding to the Northern Ireland majority.