As Brexit Looms, Northern Ireland Reckons With Its Future – And Its Past | Sunday Mail | June 2016

Gregor Klaus moved to Belfast in 2008 as a student, from a mid-sized town – Halle – in eastern Germany.

After nearly a decade in the city, he speaks fluent English, but with a German accent that carries the distinctive twang of his adopted Northern Irish homeland.

He describes himself as “passionately pro-European” and admits to being nervous about next week’s referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.

“The worst case scenario, in which the Brexiteers get Britain not just out of the EU but out of the single market, is scary as hell,” he says. “It would destabilise Europe.”

Klaus is also worried that a vote to leave Europe could jeopardise his status as a UK resident.

“If the Tory government applied the rules they are applying to non-EU migrants to EU migrants, that could potentially mean I have to leave, because I’m not earning enough money at the moment.”

Although he finds some of the rhetoric used by Brexit supporters troubling, he is hopeful – despite the polls, which are balanced on a knife edge – that the UK will choose to remain part of Europe on Thursday.

“I’ve had people rant at me about foreigners taking jobs and school places without them realising I’m one of those foreigners,” he tells me, smiling.

“But I have to laugh at it. I think the Leave campaign will run out steam.”

The EU referendum debate has been a heated affair across the UK, but the stakes are particularly high in Northern Ireland.

Over recent years Ulster has seen an influx of new residents from abroad, creating a fresh set of challenges for a society still grappling with the effects of conflict and recession.

Last week, during a visit to Derry, two former prime ministers, John Major and Tony Blair, warned that a Brexit vote could undermine the achievements of the peace process.

But Leave campaigners argue that a steady stream of EU immigration has piled pressure on Northern Ireland’s already strained public services.

“Immigration gets linked very, very quickly with racism,” Leave activist Ruth Maxwell (no relation) tells me as she canvasses the staunchly unionist Cregagh estate – the birthplace of football legend George Best – in east Belfast.

“But we’re not saying the day after we leave the EU nobody else is allowed to come here. What we want is to open the UK up to the world.

“That way the country prospers, and it will be beneficial for jobs and how we provide services such as the NHS, which is at breaking point, especially in Belfast.”

According to David Cameron, Brexit could destabilise Britain’s fragile political unity, triggering a second independence referendum in Scotland and renewed demands for a border poll in Ireland.

But the Northern Irish Leave camp doesn’t seem convinced.

“Nationalists will be nationalists and they will use any opportunity to up the tempo to reach their goals,” Neil Wilson, one of Maxwell’s canvassing companions and a Conservative party candidate at the recent Stormont Assembly elections, says.

“We’ve just had a referendum in Scotland. We were told that was a once in a lifetime opportunity … So I don’t actually believe there’s any threat to the UK through a Leave vote.”

Attitudes to the referendum divide sharply along community lines.

70 per cent of unionists oppose the EU, while 80 per cent of nationalists support it.

The Democratic Unionist party is pro-Brexit, while Sinn Féin and the SDLP are anti.

Surveys suggest that Northern Ireland as a whole will, like Scotland, back EU membership next week, and by a sizeable margin.

For grassroots Remain campaigners like Rob Pollock, an NI Green Party member, any other result would be disastrous.

“Northern Ireland’s economy, more than any part of the UK, is dependent on the EU,” he tells me when we meet at the Remain campaign’s makeshift headquarters on College Street, near Belfast City Hall.

“We get more in direct funding than we contribute to the EU budget, and our membership of the EU has been instrumental in the peace process.”

Pollock acknowledges that immigration is a serious concern for many Northern Irish voters, but he believes the eurosceptic lobby has recklessly exploited the issue.

“I think their focus on [immigration] to the expense of everything else has been a bit irresponsible,” he says.

“I don’t think it would be right to dismiss the concerns people have as racist or xenophobic … but I do think [Brexit leaders] are trying to fan the flames of that concern for their own gain.”

Given how much rests on the outcome of Thursday’s vote – a potential shift in Northern Ireland’s political status, the break up of the Anglo-Scottish union, a crackdown on the number of people coming to live in Belfast and its surrounding areas – the debate here feels remarkably subdued.

With less than a week to go, Belfast city centre looks much as it would on any other drizzly summer weekend.

Nonetheless, for many of the city’s newest residents, the referendum experience has been deeply unsettling.

“I was going to do [a teaching qualification] here, but I’ve put that on hold because I’m not sure I will be able to stay if the UK left,” Michael Muehl, a Bavarian language tutor who settled recently in Ballyhackamore, a neighbourhood on the north-eastern outskirts of Belfast, tells me.

“I wouldn’t see a safe future in the UK … The tone of the whole Leave campaign has been ‘we don’t want to have immigrants and Europeans here’ … It doesn’t feel great.”

A shorter version of this piece was published in the Sunday Mail on 19 June 2016.


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