IT IS difficult to square the pro-Brexit position taken by the Democratic Unionist Party with commonsense, foresight or even sanity.
Northern Ireland’s First Minister Arlene Foster has justified her party’s stance on the grounds that the deal struck by British Prime Minister David Cameron did not go far enough to secure fundamental reform of the EU.
In doing so, she has aligned herself and her party with UKIP leader Nigel Farage who is leading the campaign for Brexit, mostly on the grounds of migration to the UK from other EU states.
What neither Ms Foster nor the Leave campaign either in Northern Ireland or England seem to grasp is that a Brexit could very easily prompt the break-up of the United Kingdom itself. Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon has already said a Brexit vote would prompt fresh calls for a new referendum on breaking away from the rest of the UK.
That is why the Ulster Unionist Party is campaigning for the UK to stay in the EU. “If there is a Brexit but Scotland were to remain, how does the union survive?” said Mike Nesbitt, a former TV presenter and now leader of the UUP.
“As a unionist, I don’t want my prints on a button that Nicola Sturgeon might press to bring about the end of the United Kingdom.” His analysis is sensible. If the overall UK vote is to leave but Scotland votes to remain, the pressure for another referendum would be irresistible.
The position of Sinn Féin is as ironic as that of the DUP. It is campaigning vigorously for Britain to remain within the EU. As a party that campaigned against virtually every EU treaty, Sinn Féin now finds itself promoting its virtues and, in doing so, offering the best chance for the preservation of the UK as a political entity.
Although a political union for more than 300 years, the glue that has kept the UK in existence has been largely economic.
In a new book, Scotland’s leading historian TM Devine analyses his country’s fractious relationship with England, ever since the union of the two countries in 1707. It was the rise of the British Empire and the extent to which Scotland benefited from international trade as a result that ensured the union’s survival. By contrast, membership of the UK was economically disastrous for most of Ireland, resulting in the Great Famine within 50 years of the Act of Union.
The only part of the island to benefit was the industrial heartland in the North but the Republic is now far more prosperous than the North and the southern economy is 12 times its size, with annual exports of €90 billion compared to €6bn.
That makes Northern Ireland the poor relation in the UK and hugely dependent on a £7 bn (€8.9bn) annual subvention from the British Treasury.
While Britain currently pays £12b a year to Brussels, it gets half that back in grants. If the vote is for Brexit and Scotland decides to leave the UK, the position of Northern Ireland could become untenable, especially if English taxpayers come to realise that Northern Ireland was costing them more than the EU.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved