Brexit. Thursday’s referendum is reviving old animosities as Northern Ireland contemplates a firmer southern border.

What the Brexit vote could mean for Ireland

The results of the Brexit referendum will have important consequences not only for the balance of European nations, but also among those in the U.K. And some of these are already visible.

In the last two years, for example, the demand for Irish passports by British citizens has increased exponentially. The Republic of Ireland grants citizenship to anyone born abroad from an Irish parent or, with some restrictions, even to those who have an Irish grandfather or grandmother. And so, in 2014 and 2015, among citizens born in the U.K. with an Irish grandparent or grandmother, the number of dual passport applications increased by 33 percent, while it grew by 11 percent among British citizens with a Irish parent. In Northern Ireland, where the right is automatic but must be requested, the increase was 14 percent in the same period. There are no official figures for 2016, but the trend seems to be confirmed; and although the request does not require a stated reason, surveys show that it is precisely the fear of Brexit.

The feeling in Northern Ireland about Thursday’s referendum is so structured that it seems contradictory, almost like in Scotland. Here, according to polls conducted before the murder of Jo Cox, after which that gap may have shrunk, a majority of voters want to stay in the E.U. Yet there is a reason even those who are inclined to vote remain, like the voters of the Scottish National Party, could turn their backs to the instructions of their party. The movement led by Nicola Sturgeon supports Remain, but most of his constituents, together with all those who in 2014 voted in favor of independence, also seem to be the majority of those who would choose Leave. This is probably because if there were a Brexit, a new Scottish independence referendum would be at the gates, and at that point a majority in favor of the E.U. and contrary to a provincial union with England, would be more than likely.

Something similar is happening in Northern Ireland, where the most left-wing and Republican party Sinn Féin, wants to stay in Europe. But its vice-president and deputy prime minister Martin McGuinness also fears the possibility of a referendum on the reunification of Ireland, under the pretext of remaining in the E.U. That’s more than enough reason to push even some true Republicans to vote to leave the E.U., dreaming of a united Ireland as a result. Some may say this is a futuristic scenario, but a dream like that could prove destabilizing, awakening dormant old grudges and animosities.

However, the political situation in the six counties of Northern Ireland is more complex than in the rest of the U.K. The ultraconservative loyalists (DUP and TUV), together with the nationalists of Ukip, are campaigning to leave Europe. Instead, the entire Republican field and the left (Sinn Fein and SDLP), together with moderate unionism (UUP and Alliance), are campaigning to remain. Gerry Adams said on several occasions that the Brexit would have enormous repercussions for the citizens of the North, as it would reconstitute a now-invisible border that divides without customs or checkpoints Ireland from Northern Ireland. In future it could separate Europe and the U.K. An absent border means more trade, and in fact Adams’ reasoning will appeal especially to those productive sectors that operate along the north-south line.

According to Adams, beyond the economic issue, there are others relating to human rights: A fully sovereign and independent British Parliament from Europe could not follow the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, which has been useful to defend the interests of Republicans from an English justice system which for many decades has trampled them without much hesitation.

It must be said, however, that not all the left believes in similar doomsday scenarios. For example, the authoritative voice of the former Green MEP Patricia McKenna says such fears are unfounded, and claims the right of Northern Ireland, and therefore the United Kingdom, to evade the neoliberal policies that have effectively compressed national sovereignty to impose austerity policies dictated by others. Her campaign is called Green Leaves.

Fintan O’Toole, one of the most popular Emerald Isle commentators, believes the choice in favor of Brexit is mainly an icon of English conservative and aggressive nationalism, which does not care much about the needs of the nations within the U.K. But since, according to O’Toole, those nations will want to eventually free themselves from the yoke of an increasingly small country, he predicts that if the U.K. leaves the E.U. it will isolate England more than it has ever been in history: a gradual disintegration of Great Britain until only England remains.

It’s a rather imaginative scenario, too, but this concept of England no longer an island — and therefore not protected even by the greatest of insulators, the sea — may ironically give account to a prophecy about the Irish cousins, wonderfully expressed in a ballad by Dominic Behan: “the sea, the sea, great joy of my heart / long may it stay between England and me / It’s a sure guarantee that one day we will be free / Oh, thank God, we’re surrounded by water!”

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