Blog: Brexit is a salutary tale on poorly explained votes – and affection for the NHS would become a key issue –

‘A referendum result is democratically legitimate only if voters can make an informed decision.”

n the closing days of the Brexit campaign, a group of 150 political science academics wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph and warned about the importance of accurate information being disseminated to the public from both the Remain and Leave campaigns. The British aren’t used to referenda the way we are accustomed to such votes. We’ve even had the temerity over the years to give the Government of the day a bloody nose with a No vote.

Brexit is now viewed as a classic example of a so-called uninformed vote, where people went down a certain route without knowing what was coming next and being promised a panacea that was undeliverable. However, it’s called democracy, the result stands, there was no second referendum and we are all now living with the consequences. The fallout will continue for some time to come. Nonetheless, Brexit does highlight the need to not just put a binary vote but also be able to answer the question: what next? Whatever the outcome, those putting a certain proposition to the voters should be able to clearly amplify to the electorate the follow-up plan.

Chief among the bogus claims in the Brexit campaign was the false NHS cash claim, that Britain sends the EU £350m a week and this money could be better spent on the National Health Service instead of European Union membership. The slogan was plastered all over a campaign bus that toured Britain in the run-up to the 2016 referendum.

The sentiment played into the attachment, affection and alignment to the NHS and is also a key flaw in the campaign for a united Ireland.

Our Irish Independent poll by Kantar shows that in Northern Ireland there is a deep rooted fear of having to give up the NHS in the event of a united Ireland. Just one in five would feel comfortable switching to the HSE. The view reaches no majority in any cohort of the population, with three in five saying they would be uncomfortable with the idea. It shows even the staunchest of republicans have their doubts about aspects of life south of the Border.

On such issues are referenda won and lost. 

It’s the sort of issue that is difficult to understand on this side of the Border, where there is little loyalty to the HSE, even amongst those who receive excellent care in component hospitals. Yet it separates the pragmatism from the patriotism.

The stereotypical identifiers in Northern Ireland are being challenged as it marks its 100th anniversary this weekend. Brexit, the departure from the EU, the demands for Scottish independence, the awakening of Welsh nationalism, the potential breakup of the union and a change in population balance have resulted in a focus on the possibility of a unity referendum on both sides of the border and a united Ireland being openly discussed.

However, Northern Ireland is also being shaped by the rise of a new centre-ground of people who don’t identify along traditional lines and is being tested by economic disadvantage, the border on the Irish sea, the perception of lack of equal treatment and community tensions.

The birth date of Northern Ireland is even a bone of contention. A panel of historians set up to advise the government on the  centenary has settled on May 3, 1921 as the birthdate of the state. Seven other dates, including the day of the first election and the first meeting of the new Belfast parliament, were also considered, but May 3, 1921, was the day the legislation which devised the new political structures came into force.

The 1920 Government of Ireland Act drew a border on the island for the first time and although it took time to take shape it drew up two separate political entities. Northern Ireland was established because religiously, culturally and economically it was different from the rest of the island.

Five generations on from Partition, that remains the case, but the real transformation has been south of the Border, particularly in the past 20 years, where a young, liberal country with a thriving modern economy has developed.

Given the differences between the two communities in the North and the problems they are currently experiencing, talk of a united Ireland may seem premature. But events are moving rapidly.

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