The call for an independence referendum for Northern Ireland by Sinn Fein, closely following on from that of Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, is not an opportunistic endeavour. The recent elections in Northern Ireland demonstrated that the political tide is turning.
For the first time, the unionists do not have an overall majority and the gap between first preference votes for the DUP and Sinn Fein was 1168 votes. Why has this change occurred and will this really be a significant opportunity for the open-ended provisions in the Good Friday agreement for the future of the island to be tested?
The recent election demonstrated that people in Northern Ireland are now moving away from sectarian voting patterns and view themselves with a new Northern Irish identity. While the former leaders of the DUP and Sinn Fein were seasoned politicians who had lived through many years of the troubles, the current DUP leader Arlene Foster seems to have forgotten this past and to take her electorate for granted. Before the election, the NI Assembly had made no preparation for Brexit and acted as if all would be the same as usual. They accepted assurances that agricultural subsidies would continue but this seems impossible in a new WTO system of trade that the UK government appears to prefer. These specially negotiated EU agricultural subsidies will not be allowed under that regime.
On the other hand, Sinn Fein has been active in promoting the issues that will face Northern Ireland following Brexit. They have already achieved an agreement from the European Parliament that Northern Ireland will receive funding to stabilise it post Brexit. Secondly, they have been visiting all the EU capitals to argue that Northern Ireland needs a special status to reflect its economy and its past difficulties. Added to this, the Taoiseach has agreed with the President of the European Commission that if Northern Ireland ever has a closer political arrangement with the south, then it can join the EU immediately, using the German reunification precedent and that this will form part of the Brexit agreement. This point will also not be lost on Nicola Sturgeon in Scotland.
People in Northern Ireland are only too aware of the difficulties that they will face when Brexit is implemented. Already companies are moving across the border to the south. While the Prime Minister has guaranteed the continuance of the Common Travel Area (CTA) in the Brexit white paper, this will only be for people. Some 30,000 people currently work across the border and there are more that 1million movements each month but many of these will be for goods. With the exit from the customs union will come border posts reminiscent of the time when the north south border was the most militarised in Europe. Also, people are aware of the organized crime and smuggling that goes on across any border of this kind. In practical terms, the CTA separates Great Britain from the United Kingdom - how will this work? Will there be migrants gathering in Northern Ireland seeking to enter the mainland?
Why has all this come about? Outside London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are off the radar. The recent speeches and actions by the Prime Minster demonstrates her own lack of understanding about the lasting effects brought about by nearly twenty years of devolution and, in the case of Northern Ireland, peace. The Prime Minster has to decide on both referendum requests and, given the majority remain votes in both Northern Ireland and Scotland, these will be hard to resist. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, to lose one member of the United Kingdom is a misfortune, to lose two looks like carelessness.