Nicola Sturgeon isn’t the only nationalist leader in these isles who’s still waiting on her much-anticipated Brexit dividend. So too is Michelle O’Neill, who succeeded the late Martin McGuinness to the ‘northern leadership’ of Sinn Fein.
Of the three strands of the ‘Brexit could break up the UK’ argument, the Northern Irish angle always seemed the most plausible (we had our doubts about the Scottish, and the Welsh was straightforwardly ridiculous even before they voted Leave).
By complicating the UK’s only land border Brexit poses some unique challenges both to Ulster and the Republic of Ireland, which our editor has been exploring.
Yet despite a very poor result for the capital-U Unionist parties in this month’s snap election to the Northern Ireland Assembly, there doesn’t seem to have been much if any groundswell of support for joining the Republic. News from Ulster is dominated by the latest ongoing crisis in its domestic politics, rather than earth-shattering polling about its constitutional future.
It’s important to remember that, despite the rhetoric deployed by the local parties, the province’s constitutional status is independently guaranteed by referendum. Northern Irish elections are no longer border polls by proxy, which is probably why turnout is so much lower than it use to be.
We can only speculate as to why the Brexit vote has not, or at least not yet, produced the surge in nationalism so many expected. Voters may be waiting to see what the terms of British departure, and the future state of the border, actually are. Or perhaps the realities simply haven’t sunk in yet.
Alternatively, it may simply be that the pro-UK vote is much more solid than many commentators expected (or hoped). The economic realities of Northern Ireland’s economic dependence on the mainland have been sufficient to check those who may have been swing voters.
According to the Northern Irish Government, in 2015 Northern Irish ‘exports’ to the rest of the UK totalled £13.8 billion, compared to just £3.4 billion to the Republic and another £1.9 billion to the rest of the EU. Meanwhile exports to the rest of the world, the market that could potentially benefit from Brexit, stood at £3.8 billion.
Such figures put discussions about the economic impact of a border in perspective, and that’s before factoring in that the British Government underwrites the Northern Irish one via the block grant to an extent Dublin would have struggled to match even before Brexit burdened it with fresh economic challenges
None of this is to say that the Government can afford to be complacent. A huge amount can happen in two years, and may happen much sooner than that if James Brokenshire can’t salvage the current crisis talks.
And it wouldn’t require a real shift in public opinion for a few ‘dissident’ Republicans to convince themselves that the time to bomb their way to a ‘united Ireland’ has come.
But as it stands it seems that Sinn Fein, like the SNP, have to make do with sentiment providing the bulk of their case against the UK – and voters just aren’t that sentimental about the EU.