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David StewartMarch 15, 2016

Some weeks ago, this correspondent first revealed that a June referendum vote to leave Europe in the English part of the (current) United Kingdom might not go down too well in the Scottish part. Since then the possibility that, were an English vote for a Brexit to prevail, there would be fresh calls for a second Scottish “indyref” has become accepted wisdom. It is entirely possible that someone else said this too, but we didn’t notice.

The most recent polling has tended to back this prediction. It is beginning to look like the forthcoming referendum’s result will be scrutinized closely for voting patterns in the various component parts of the United Kingdom and that a simple, U.K.-wide majority one way or the other will satisfy far from everyone. Now, if we were not already over-excited and hyperventilating about this, an unforeseen and even more interesting development has just popped up. It’s a further threat to the concept of Britain, that has lasted over three centuries, and to more recent settlements between the British and Irish states. The June referendum could get really interesting.

The Deputy First Minister of the Northern Ireland assembly, Martin McGuinness, a veteran of Northern Ireland’s contentious politics over several decades, has opined that a Brexit vote should lead to a vote on Irish reunification. He was widely quoted expressing this view in carefully-chosen words: that such a poll would be to “end Partition and retain [Ireland’s] role in the E.U.” He has challenged the London government to set such a poll in motion immediately after a vote to leave the European Union.

McGuinness, Deputy Leader of Sinn Fein, spoke also of a “democratic imperative” to give Irish citizens the right to vote in a border poll. Did he mean Irish citizens or British subjects (we’re not citizens on this side of the Irish Sea) who live in the six counties of Northern Ireland? For the moment, at least, that question’s left tantalizingly open. Nor, so far, has there been any development on another fairly obvious implication of the upcoming vote: what might happen were a majority in the six counties to vote to leave the European Union? What would that mean for the rest of the island of Ireland? A return, for example, to policed borders?

Both the major nationalist parties in the North, Sinn Fein and the S.D.L.P. (Social Democratic and Labour Party) favor a vote to remain in the E.U. as does the U.U.P. (Ulster Unionist Party) while only the D.U.P. (Democratic Unionist Party, formerly led by the late Ian Paisley) stands for Brexit. This alignment raises the potentially amusing situation that Sinn Fein has placed itself in agreement with the U.K. Prime Minister in London. McGuinness’s intervention in the debate raises the matter of what a British departure might imply for the whole island of Ireland and can only intensify the debate over similar implications for Scotland. For Scots who want to stay in the E.U. there is a growing sense that they might feel dragged out by an English majority voting to leave; increased support for a second independence referendum for Scotland itself begins to look likely.

As the various campaigns spin up the Euro debate, arguments are developing around questions of the disentanglement from scores of existing legal and trade arrangements. One recent estimate suggests that a Brexit could be a decade-long process, taking up time and energy that, one could argue, might be better used elsewhere.

Think, for example, of the Republic of Ireland, as things are at present, conducting a massive amount of trade with Britain, all within a European Union context. The Republic of Ireland had the fastest-growing economy in Europe last year and maybe this year too. Following a Brexit, there would have to be new bilateral trade agreements, covering all sorts of areas, between the Irish Republic, continuing as a E.U. member state, and Britain; or at least England, were that nation to leave.

And it’s not hard to imagine that some companies and corporations might take a long, lingering look at whether an isolated London might be the best location for future investments or even for their headquarters. Maybe they might look at the relative merits of an E.U.-remaining Dublin, if not Edinburgh, instead. We just cannot say, it seems, at this moment if the massive wealth of London would stay in that city post-Brexit or would find another home. By some measurements, London, were it a state, would be the E.U.’s seventh-largest economy.

Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which has largely kept peace ever since, contains provision for a border poll on reunification. The London government is obliged by the agreement to legislate for any change that such a poll might mandate. On this occasion, London’s Northern Ireland Office, sidestepping McGuinness’s proposal, held that there are no grounds for a such a poll at this time, as all their surveys indicate a substantial majority supports remaining in the European Union. Could McGuinness’s proposal, by raising so many collateral questions, now put that judgment to the test?

David Stewart, S.J., is America’s London correspondent.

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