BREXIT – Northern Ireland reacts.

Strabane-born Hugh Vaughan canvasses Northern Irish responses to BREXIT, a special news item.



Northern Irish border as it was, sourced from @NIConstitution


Source: @NIConstitution.

Derry-born, London-living poet novelist, Michael Foley, writing in the Irish Times, felt Brexit was an appeal to Nationalism, with its double-speak of sovereignty and taking-back control. Given the economic and societal insecurity, Europe was the perfect scapegoat. Was there ever a golden era free from immigration and regulation? He writes, ‘The consequence is likely to be all kinds of division, fragmentation, separation and resentment’. As an Irish Times headline demonstrates, ‘Brexit result triggers wave of hate crimes in UK’.

Foley also mentions Scotland and their overwhelming vote to Remain. Like Northern Ireland that also voted to Remain (52%), Derry-born deputy First Minister Martin Mc Guinness, draws comfort from Scotland’s stance. ‘I believe that the mandate that we got during the course of the referendum to remain puts us in a very special place. It’s quite clear that Scotland will make that same case’.

Sinn Fein feels the case for a border poll for a United Ireland has been ‘strengthened’. The Good Friday agreement states: ‘If the wish expressed by a majority in such a poll is that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland, the Secretary of State shall lay before Parliament such proposals to give effect to that wish as may be agreed between Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom and the Government of Ireland.’ But the BBC reported the most recent opinion polls suggested that the majority of people would not support that – with 44% of people saying they would like to remain part of the UK. Of those surveyed, 24% said they would vote for unity in 20 years. In 2013, a BBC Spotlight opinion poll found a 65% to 17% majority for Northern Ireland remaining in the UK.

Scotland and Northern Ireland have been told they can’t negotiate for themselves. They are a part of the UK. Even, an Taoiseach Enda Kenny went into bat for Scotland’s First Minister, the feisty Nicola Sturgeon. When Boris Johnson, who led the Leave campaign in the UK said that ‘Project Fear is over’, after the result, Ms Sturgeon tweeted: ‘Indeed, Boris. Project Farce has now begun – and you are largely responsible.’

First Minister Arlene Foster and her Democratic Unionist Party campaigned for a Leave vote. She said on the BBC: ‘The campaign is over; the decision has been taken. That’s certainly my focus, to get the best deal for Northern Ireland in terms of the Brexit from the European Union.’

The Northern Irish business community advocated Remain; their potential loss of access to the European markets, including the Republic, was a major concern according to the Belfast Telegraph. It also reports calls for Irish Passport offices in Derry and Belfast as the surge for Irish passport forms outstrips supply. In an editorial ‘this week, the Belfast Telegraph made it clear that Northern Ireland’s best interests, both economically and socially, would be best served by staying in the EU. This view was clearly endorsed by the Northern Ireland electorate. Instead of finger-pointing and accusations from the political class, there is a need to understand why people feel so strongly, and a need for inclusiveness to try and bring the country together again’.

The Irish Times reported that lifelong Republican and socialist Bernadette McAliskey, agreed with the Left analysis of her friend Eamonn McCann, fellow lifelong activist, first-time elected politician and Derry-born, that in essence, there is little difference between British imperialism and European imperialism and so a plague on both their houses. She went for Remain based on practical on-the-ground reasons: primarily what Leave might mean for the hundreds of immigrants she works with in Northern Ireland.

Palestinian immigration lawyer Abed Natur, who is married to an Irish woman and based in Dungannon, Northern Ireland, said the referendum result was very disappointing. ‘I think the Brexit campaign played on the emotions of people, it played on xenophobia and racism‘.

Between a rock and a hard place. Sourced from the Irish Independent.

Between a rock and a hard place. Sourced from the Irish Independent.

Mark Devenport, BBC Political editor, posed some questions on their Northern Ireland website before the results were in but which were still very relevant:

What arrangements will be put in place for people who live on one side of the Irish border and work on the other, for groups depending on European peace or cross border Interreg funding, for farmers depending on the Common Agricultural Policy and for businesses trading goods north and south or east and west?

How will the EU recognise the unusual position of Irish citizens north of the border – presumably entitled to all the rights of freedoms of movement enjoyed by other EU citizens, but resident outside the EU’s borders?

How will the Stormont Executive make its voice heard in the Brexit negotiations given that its two main partners pull in opposite directions on EU matters?

I haven’t even got to the question of a potential new Scottish independence vote or Sinn Fein calls for a border poll; however, it’s clear there is no shortage of questions but very few answers.

In the Irish Times, Fermanagh border inhabitants worried about their daily purchases: for many it was handier to shop in Ballyshannon, in the Republic, rather than face the traffic in Enniskillen. Fintan O’Toole in the Guardian calls it a soft border: ‘barely noticeable’ but Brexit ‘is dragging Irish history along in its triumphal wake, like tin cans tied to a wedding car’. Ms O’Neill, NI Health Minister said she was worried over the impact a potential ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland could have: ‘I think that it’s important that we continue to work collectively on an all-island basis’.

A YouTube animation is a good sample of thinking through the implications for NI of Brexit. Facebook pages lit up far and wide with incredulity at the result. Friends and family, here in Australia and in Ireland and everywhere in between, spoke of their dismay. But for some, the Irish craic was always to be had: the Derry Journal reports of Strexit, a Facebook page demanding the independence of Strabane from the Derry-dominated Derry City and Strabane District Council. One ‘STREXIT’ member joked: ‘Let’s stay in. Sure in a few years one of our councillors will be the Mayor of Derry (God help us all!) and we can change the city’s name to Strabane.’


Hugh Vaughan was born in Strabane, and raised in Derry, Northern Ireland, and currently lives in Melbourne, lecturing in Information Systems.  He has written two books: A Bump on the Road and Cillefoyle Park, both creative memoirs, focusing on growing up during The Troubles in the North West of Ireland.