Just as there are those who think sport and politics shouldn’t mix (so what are they playing all those national anthems for?), there are those who think that the whole Brexit matter should be approached as a purely economic question.
There’s a degree of sense in such a stand. Brexit is about what country trades with what other countries, and under what conditions. The UK has for forty years traded as part of the EEC/EU; it now has decided to strike out on its own and form its own trade deals. So the don’t-mention-politics people make a reasonable case: it’s the economy, stupid.
But remember that those words – ‘It’s the economy, stupid’ – were uttered by a man who at the time was running to become president of the United States. He saw how the economic circumstances in which people found themselves had a heavy influence on how they saw politics. In fact, a major reason why people in Britain voted Leave was because they felt they had been neglected by the establishment politicians and they wanted to give them a kicking. And a kicking they surely got.
Let’s bring it down to our north-eastern corner of Ireland. When the Brexit referendum was held, 56% of people here made it abundantly clear that they wanted to stay in the EU. This was despite the fact that the largest unionist party here, the DUP, urged people to vote Leave. They didn’t. Economic considerations were more important for most of the people here, including obviously a substantial number of unionists.
Another poll was held in December of last year. If Britain left the EU without a deal, 55% of those surveyed said they would favour a united Ireland – and among that 55% was 11% of unionists.
People from the north of Ireland are often credited (wrongly, in my view) with being hard-headed business people, hard-deal-drivers who didn’t allow themselves to be distracted from matters economic and who liked to wring out the last penny. They were also credited – particularly in the case of northern unionists – with being fiercely loyal to the union with Britain. Remember how the Ulster Covenant was said to have been signed by some unionists in their own blood?
But to use a by-now-weary line, Brexit has changed everything. People here and in other parts of the UK, particularly Scotland, have become convinced that ending the ties with Westminster might actually make a lot more sense. And certainly people here in this ghastly green corner don’t want to go back to the old days of bitterness and violence. A growing number of unionists, particularly middle-class unionists, are doing a mental comparison between the state they live in and the state to the south. The twenty-six counties has a gay Taoiseach of Indian background; the six counties has Arlene Foster. The twenty-six counties a liberal outlook on life; the six counties has a deeply conservative position on matters generally. The twenty-six counties has massive housing and health problems, but it also has the fastest growing economy in the EU; the north would collapse if there wasn’t an abnormally high number of jobs in the public sector and if it didn’t receive an annual hand-out from Mother Britain. In short, the south is in tune with the times, the north looks back and pines for the good old days before the Troubles when everyone, regardless of religion, was happy.
But not all in the north think that way. Remember that 11% of unionists favouring a united Ireland in the event of a UK crash-out from the EU. Call me a cock-eyed optimist but I don’t think the UK will crash out; a deal of some kind will be cobbled together. But guess what? That 11% of unionists won’t have gone away. Because as the old song says, “How you gonna keep them down on the farm/Now that they’ve seen Paree?”