Republicans would not enjoy being compared with the most ardent, evangelical Brexiteers yet, the parallels are obvious. Just as what passes for Republicanism in today’s Ireland, and maybe since the Famine, is far narrower than the democratic republicanism of “liberté, égalité, fraternité”, Brexiteers seem defined by an insular, nativist worldview.
Both groups imagine themselves the sole keepers of a flame and long for a reality that hasn’t been a reality for at least a lifetime in Britain and for far longer on this island. Each group advances policies built on an unshakeable sense of exceptionalism. Both celebrate ourselves-alone jingoism anachronistic in this multicultural, tolerant world. It may be unfair to suggest that something as wistful as nostalgia is a driving force but it cannot be discounted as a motivating energy either. Neither group, as yesterday’s events in London and the two-year Stormont standoff show, has a natural grasp of the possibilities of compromise. Each is influenced by murky figures who go to great lengths to hide identities and objectives.
However, the trait that joins them at the hip is their indifference to the consequences of their actions for those who do not share their ambitions. Across the Irish Sea that has shaped debate around the unknown consequences of Brexit.
In Ireland, it has renewed calls for a border poll. Figures as diverse — and as alike — as former DUP leader Peter Robinson and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald anticipate change. Last summer, Mr Robinson told Unionists to prepare to lose a border poll. At that time, Ms McDonald suggested a “chaotic Brexit” was not the moment for a vote but on mature reflection — or maybe a nudge from a murky figure — she called for a vote. Yesterday’s declaration from Theresa May that to win Commons support for her deal the withdrawal pact must be reopened will not dampen that enthusiasm.
When a border poll eventually arrives recent NI election results will not be a reliable guide other than to confirm that demographics do not decree destiny. In the last census, 45% in the North self-identified as Catholic, but only 25% as Irish.
However, this disengaged constituency would be stirred by a border poll and they would hardly vote to become a minority.
Ironically, many of the arguments offered against Brexit seem as sharp if used against the idea of unity. Any interruption of the North’s economy — €25bn sales to Britain but just €4.5bn to the south — would have inevitable consequences for the North’s exceptional dependency on state jobs. How would the North react to assuming liability for our bank debt or joining the euro? What kind of a margin would be needed to avert the accusation that the 52/48 vote behind Brexit is too close for profound change? There are many comparisons but there is one great difference as last weekend’s murder in Belfast and the car bomb in Derry underline. The possibility of a return to violence remains, so Ms McDonald’s initial position was by far the more prudent. Hopefully,
Ireland’s tiocfaidh ár lá Republicans will show far more wit, patience,and flexibility than their Brexit peers.