Special Northern Ireland report

Why did the Northern Irish say no to Brexit ?

The United Kingdom has never been so badly named. While the majority of British people voted to leave the European Union in the referendum held on Thursday, June 23, 2016, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. 

In June 2016, 51.9 percent of Britons made the choice to leave the EU, triggering the Brexit process, while 55.9 percent of Northern Irish voted against. Still, they were huge difference of votes against Protestants and Catholics in Ulster.

Emma Bell, teacher in politics and civilization at the university of Savoie Mont Blanc, explains the different votes amongst Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. “85% of Catholics and only 40 % of Protestants voted against Brexit, it was primarily a catholic nationalist vote against Brexit”. Catholics voted against it, “because there were frightened of the idea of a hard border, so it loosens the connection that they have with the Republic of Ireland. They also never really recognize the UK government, so it was easier for them to feel the bigger part from this broader union, a union pro nationalist”. If Catholics voted mainly against Brexit, to stay in the EU, for the unionist in Northern Ireland the most important union is the union of the United Kingdom. 

This rejection of the Brexit in Ulster would nevertheless hide a contrasting reality, according to John Stuart Mill, expert on Ireland and interlocutor of Beaumont and Tocqueville. “The adherence of part of the unionist community to Europe is not explained by the same motivations as the adherence of nationalists, there are several reasons for this,” he explains. 

“Among the nationalists, especially among the moderates of the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party), Europe is seen as a major change, mainly because it has succeeded in providing better protection of their fundamental rights. It has also opened the border with the Republic of Ireland, which has created a form of rapprochement with Dublin”. On the other hand, among the more moderate unionists, membership of the EU would be motivated primarily “by pragmatism rather than by any real pro-European conviction”. 

On May 5th, the Irish elections 2022 will take place.  Sinn Fein becomes the second largest parliamentary force. This left-wing party, long considered the political arm of the IRA, now has 37 seats in the 160-seat Dail, the lower house of the Irish Parliament.

The devolution of power in Northern Ireland was based on the desire to calm relations between the two unionist and nationalist communities. The main objective of Good Friday Agreements signed in 1998, was to put an end to the conflict and organize power so that the majority does not hold all the power. The Parliament is elected according to the strict principle of proportionality, and the executive is equally divided between unionists and nationalists. If a piece of legislation seemed contrary to their interests, Catholics and Protestants can veto it. The formation of a government therefore requires the creation of permanent coalitions, dominated by Sinn Féin for the nationalists and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) for the unionists. 

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