Brexit: What will it mean for Derry and Inishowen?
It is hardly a new phenomenon that when political issues, even one as wide-ranging as Brexit comes along, that Northern Ireland immediately demarcates it stance along unionist and nationalist lines.
By and large, although not exclusively, this has been the case this time as well.
How Northern Ireland has voted will be revealed at eight count centres on Thursday night and into the early hours of Friday morning. No matter what the outcome of the overall vote, perhaps one of the most intriguing results will emanate from Foyle.
The proximity of the city of Derry to the UK’s only land border and the potential political, economic and social ramifications of a Brexit has been a cause great concern for the traditional trading hinterland between Northern Ireland’s second city and Inishowen. Bear in mind that at its outer western limit, Derry is around just three miles away from Donegal.
Both areas share a lot more than a lot of common surnames and strong familial ties. Indeed, both regions share a common and an almost perpetual sense of anger at perennially having the highest rates of unemployment in their respective jurisdictions and chronic levels of underinvestment from Belfast and Dublin respectively too.
Thursday’s poll has thrown up a strange political scenario to say the least. Nationalists, whose natural proclivity is break the link with Britain now find themselves in the position of wanting to retain the link with the European Union via Britain’s links to it.
In Dublin too, a government without a say in this referendum want Britain to remain because of overriding trade considerations.
It is doubtful that again this century that British politics will witness such a divisive and acrimonious debate. An indicator that the votes from this region may prove pivotal in the overall decision to ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ was signalled when two former British Prime Ministers, John Major and Tony Blair, who once faced each other across the floor of the House of Commons, travelled to Derry in a unified plea for people to vote ‘Remain’.
A Brexit throws up the spectre of the return of border checkpoints between Derry and Donegal. Whilst they may not be militaristic in tone as during the Troubles they nevertheless would be a grim reminder of days gone by when it sometimes took hours to travel three miles into the Republic of Ireland.
According to the President of the Buncrana Chamber of Commerce, the closest Inishowen town to Derry, the Brexit debate has been mainly characterised by a feeling of uncertainty.
Ryan Stewart said: “The major concern is simply about what is going to happen. There are major questions about the border and the effect that it may have on freedom of movement between Derry and Inishowen. We have enjoyed an uplift in recent times from a strong Sterling rate which has obviously been good for our traders. This could result in job losses which Inishowen and especially Buncrana cannot afford.
“The area is buoyant with visitors at the moment, but the reappearance of a physical border could put locals as well as tourists off from crossing the border in either direction. I know that the Irish Government are urging the UK to remain in Europe but this is being done at a macro level and so will harm a small border town.
But, where do Derry’s politicians actually stand on the issue?
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood is in no doubt that a break with the European Union would have a dramatic detrimental impact on his native city.
He said: “Throughout times of instability and conflict, throughout our fragile peace process and now during a fragile economic recovery, Europe has been a consistently supportive partner. While successive British Governments and Stormont Ministers have failed to deliver on the transformative promise of devolution, Europe has provided billions in investment and trade opportunities.
“The Treasury’s analysis shows that people in Derry will be over £183 million worse off each year if we’re forced to leave Europe. In a constituency which faces unacceptable levels of unemployment, where people continue to struggle, households will be left £4,300 out of pocket. When faced with a choice between tax breaks for Durham or poverty reduction in Derry, can any of us realistically suggest that George Osbourne and the cabinet elite will rally to defend our city?
“Europe is not perfect, but it has set out a framework for the defence of high human rights standards, it has given us significant advances in workers’ rights and it continues to invest in our fledgling recovery. It’s time we defended our European identity and our continued membership of the EU by voting Remain this week.”
Derry also has amongst its political class a sitting MEP. Sinn Fein’s Martina Anderson, like her party, believes that remaining in the European Union is the correct choice.
She said: “This is a hugely important vote which will have implications not just for the north but for the entire island of Ireland. Brexit would be disastrous for Ireland north and south. We in the north would be shackled to a Britain with a hostile, hawkish Tory government, wedded to the failed policies of austerity-a peripheral region of a peripheral state on the periphery of Europe.
“We in Sinn Fein have absolutely no confidence whatsoever that the British Government has any interest whatsoever in replacing funds and support lost to the north in the event of a Brexit. “
East Derry’s votes will also be counted at the Foyle Arena in the city following the closing of the poll on Thursday night. The more rural section of Co Derry has of course a great reliance on agricultural output.
Currently, Northern Ireland receives around £236 million per year to support farmers. In addition European support money also means that local fishermen receive around £17 million per year.
The DUP are in favour of a withdrawal from Europe and the party’s Westminster MP for East Derry, Gregory Campbell has said in terms of monetary support for farmers that: “Many farmers rely on their Single Farm Payment, particularly during periods such as that experienced over recent years, when prices have been low.
“The choice however is not whether agricultural subsidies will be paid, but about whether they are decided in Europe and are subject to currency exchange fluctuations, or whether they are set in this country and paid by our national government. Those who say leaving would result in uncertainty, fail to point out that staying will also result in uncertainty as we don’t know what impact new Nations joining, such as the 70 million citizens of Turkey, for example would have.
“Agriculture is subsidised in most industrialised nations and there are very few people who argue that agriculture could survive in the United Kingdom without subsidy. All those who are arguing we should leave the European Union accept this argument, but again those arguing to remain in the EU prefer the myth that subsidies would cease entirely.
“Whether it is in the arguments put forward on trade deals or agricultural funding it should be no surprise that the argument for remaining within the EU is to tell us that no alternative is available. An admission that other, better options are available undermines the central plank of their campaign. It’s a clear case of: “Well they would say that wouldn’t they.”
“The DUP has negotiated the best deal from Westminster on issues such as welfare reform and we would continue to do this across other areas, including agriculture. Should the UK leave the United Kingdom then HM Treasury would find the extra money we pay to the European Union as a net contributor within its coffers. The Barnett formula means the Northern Ireland budget would increase as a consequence. Local politicians would be able to put more money into the issues we prioritise here in Northern Ireland.
“None of these arguments even touch on the basics of national sovereignty and whether it is right that decisions are taken in Brussels by a “government” which is neither elected by, nor accountable to anyone here.
“People should judge all of the facts in this debate and make their judgement, having weighed that evidence. It is no coincidence however that the majority of those expounding the values of the European Union were opposed to allowing the public to have a say in this referendum in the first place.”
People Before Profit MLA Eamonn McCann has lambasted the European Union as “neo-liberal” and “anti-democratic” and says he’ll be voting for Brexit.
“There is no prospect of turning the EU away from the path of naked ‘competitiveness’ (the race to the bottom), the destruction of fundamental rights, and enforced austerity. If we vote to stay in, things will only get worse,” said Mr McCann.
“Our slogan is – ‘In or out, the fight goes on.’ We will have better terrain for the struggle outside the stranglehold of an anti-democratic entity. That’s the biggest point of all,” he said.
Mr McCann also predicted there’ll be no hardened border in the event of Brexit.
“As for Leave leading to border checks on the Buncrana Road - the border between Sweden (in the EU) and Norway (outside) is like Bridgend. You drive across without hindrance and wouldn’t notice a border.
“The two governments and every one of the bigger parties on the island are opposed to a ‘hard border.’ More important, the people on both sides of the border wouldn’t stand for it. Does anybody think that the British government is going to send thousands of border guards to stand at crossings at Louth-Armagh?”
The veteran socialist said the suggestion the European Union protects the rights of ordinary people today is a fiction.
“The days when the EU had even a pretence of a progressive role are long gone. John Major’s government negotiated a full opt-out from the social chapter through the Maastricht Treaty. EU has now become completely committed to letting market forces rip through every aspect of our lives. EU competition law forbids intervention to save jobs - because State subsidy would ‘distort the market.’
“Remain campaigners say they will reform the EU. No, they won’t. There is no mechanism for doing any such thing. The Lisbon Treaty copper-fastened neo-liberalism.
“The Greek people learned all about EU democracy last year. Their decisions were treated with contempt. The chief EU Commissioner, Jean Paul Junker, put it plain: ‘To suggest that everything is going to change because there’s a new government in Athens is to mistake dreams for reality… There can be no democratic choice against the European treaties.”