Is the UK exit from the EU an opportunity to turn Northern Unionists towards Europe (and Ireland)?

So, four and a half years after the fateful Brexit vote the United Kingdom finally left the European Union on New Year’s Eve with a trade deal in place. The sometimes unfathomable Northern Ireland protocol (which is separate from this deal) is clear on one thing: there will be no customs checks on the Irish border.

After that it becomes complicated. There will be a new ‘regulatory’ border between Northern Ireland and England, Scotland and Wales, meaning some checks on goods moving across the Irish Sea. That’s because, unlike the North, Britain won’t have to follow EU rules in the future. This will not be good for Northern Irish consumers.

The EU has very strict rules about what can enter its market when it comes to foods such as meat, milk, fish and eggs. From today, some food products arriving in Northern Ireland from England, Scotland or Wales will need to be checked to ensure they meet EU standards. This will involve border control posts at seaports, where paperwork will be checked and some physical inspections will take place.

However, in order to reduce any potential disruption, supermarkets will be given an initial three month ‘grace period’ where the rules will not be enforced on the food they bring into Northern Ireland. This is to give them time to adapt to the changes and to ensure supplies are maintained. Some meat products, like sausages, will have a longer six month grace period.

What happens after this period is unclear, and will be the subject of future negotiations. The NI Department of Economy’s own recent paper on the economic impact of the protocol accepts that it will represent “a significant shock” to the regional economy, because the requirement to apply “the EU customs code at NI ports will inevitably lead to increased cost for firms importing from GB, in the form of customs declarations, sanitary and phytosanitary certificates [for the processing and transport of livestock] as well as increased checks and surveillance.”

So for trade purposes Northern Ireland is now classified as part of the EU, whereas the rest of the UK is classed as a separate nation. That represents a huge victory for the skilled Irish politicians and diplomats who worked might and main in the EU’s corridors of power to ensure there would be no border on the island of Ireland, and that, if there were to be any post-Brexit border at all, it would be an economic one down the Irish Sea.

It remains to be seen whether, in the words of that deeply untrustworthy senior British minister, Michael Gove, this will mean that “businesses in Northern Ireland have the opportunity to enjoy the best of both worlds: access to the European single market, because there’s no infrastructure on the island of Ireland, and at the same time unfettered access to the rest of the UK market.” I hope it may prove so.

This trade agreement and its accompanying protocol also has much broader implications. It means that in the future, across a broad range of economic, trading and other areas of society, Dublin rather than London will be the main interlocutor between Northern Ireland and the EU. There is a great responsibility on the Irish government to handle this crucial new responsibility with sensitivity and balance. I believe it could prove far more important in the long run than Sinn Fein’s Pavlovian and potentially destabilising demands for an early Border Poll.

I have long believed that the coming together of the two economies on the island to ensure the overall prosperity, stability and harmony of its people is the best medium to long-term way forward to some kind of genuinely ‘united’ Ireland. The NI protocol, if handled well by the Irish Government, could be a major step in this direction.

I offer one small non-economic example. Irish higher education minister Simon Harris (a potential future Taoiseach who was much praised for his early handling of the Covid-19 epidemic as health minister) has pledged that the government will cover the cost of any third level student at a Northern university wishing to avail of the EU’s Erasmus programme. This scheme enables third level students (and a few staff) to study for part or all of their degrees in another EU member state or undertake a work placement in an EU country with all their fees and costs covered. In a sign of mind-boggling insularity, the Johnson government has chosen to end British universities’ involvement in Erasmus (which also sees large numbers of European students coming to the UK), despite the EU’s willingness to facilitate their continued participation.

This is a far-sighted move by Dublin. Around 650 Northern Irish students and staff took part in the scheme last year. What better way to persuade the significant minority of those students who are from a unionist background of the bona fides of the Irish government than to fund their studies in this way. That is one way to start turning intelligent young people of a unionist bent – those who will help lead Northern Ireland in the future – into potential supporters (or at least not rigid opponents) of some form of sensible Irish unity.

I would go further. I am shocked to discover that there is no possibility of taking an undergraduate course in European Studies at the North’s two universities. Why doesn’t the Irish government fund a chair of European Studies at either Queen’s University Belfast and/or the University of Ulster? In this way future generations of students from a unionist background can start to see that being European – and therefore also Irish -poses no threat to their parallel British identity and culture.

There are other areas where I believe the Irish government, starting with its €500 million Shared Island fund, could help win hearts and minds for closer relationships in Ireland. I have listened to Dr John Kyle, deputy leader of the small, left-of-centre Progressive Unionist Party, arguing for greater North-South cooperation in areas that particularly affect his poor Belfast working class constituents like disadvantage in education and mental health (the Centre for Cross Border Studies published research reports on the potential for cooperation in both these areas as long ago as the early 2000s)

What did John Hume, Northern Ireland’s greatest advocate of learning from Europe, say about this? I have been reading a lengthy article he wrote in 1989 for the London Review of Books in which he spelt out his philosophy at that time, just after he had finished his first round of talks with the Sinn Fein leadership.1

He had harsh things to say about both Ulster Unionists and Irish Republicans. He decried the “archaic supremacism” of the former, “stripped of ascendancy and privilege” and forced for the first time by the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement onto a “politically equal footing” with nationalism. And he condemned the “undiluted fascism” of the IRA and Sinn Fein, with their violent methods and belief that they are the “pure Irish master race.” “They have also the other hallmark of fascism – the need for a scapegoat; as they see it, the Brits are to blame for everything – even their own atrocities!”

Can one see those continuing tendencies, mercifully watered down by two decades of peace processing and power-sharing, in the present day DUP and Sinn Fein? I believe one can. They are less important in the DUP, which after Brexit is a declining force. But there are real danger signs in a resurgent Sinn Fein, not surprising given that the seeds of European fascism are often found in the kind of ultra-nationalism and militarism (and thus hatred and violence) from which that party springs. Last month’s revelation (by Jennifer Bray of the Irish Times) of an unofficial ‘Sinn Fein’ Facebook site (quickly disowned by the party, which asked that it should be taken down) with 16,000 subscribers, full of hate messages and threats of violence against the republic’s constitutional politicians, is only the latest evidence of this ugly strain.2

In his 1989 essay, John Hume went on to outline a viewpoint which I passionately share, and some damning statistics which are largely forgotten in Ireland today. “There is not a single injustice in Northern Ireland today that justifies the taking of a single human life. What is more, the vast majority of the major injustices suffered not only by the Nationalist community but by the whole community are direct consequences of the IRA campaign. If I were to lead a civil rights campaign in Northern Ireland today, the main target would be the IRA. It is they who carry out the greatest infringements of human and civil rights, with their murders and bombings, their executions without trial, their kneecappings and punishment shootings. The most fundamental human right is the right to life. Who in Northern Ireland takes the most human lives?

“Let the record speak. In the 21-year perod of the current troubles, 31 per cent of those who have died were members of the security forces. 14 per cent were members of paramilitary organisations. 55 per cent were ordinary civilian men and women from both sections of the community, 69 per cent of them from the Catholic community and 31 per cent from the Protestant. And who killed all those people? The statistics are devastating: 44 per cent were killed by the Provisional IRA and 18 per cent by their fellow-travelling ‘Republican’ paramilitaries. 27 per cent were killed by Loyalists. 10 per cent by the British Army. Two per cent were killed by the RUC and 0.28 per cent by the UDR. In short, people describing themselves as Irish Republicans have killed six times as many human beings as the British Army, 30 times as many as the RUC and 250 times as many as the UDR…Was it O’Casey who said: ‘The gunmen are not dying for the people, the people are dying for the gunmen’?”

Hume then went on to talk about Europe. “Forty-three years ago the Second World War ended. Europe was devastated, its major cities in chaos, millions of its citizens dead. The bitterness between ancient foes, particularly France and Germany, was deeper than ever. If in that bleak landscape someone had forecast the Europe of the 1980s, he would have been described as a fool or a dreamer. Yet it happened – because leaders had the vision to suggest new ways. They recognised that if the peoples of Western Europe, with their deep differences and fears for their survival, had chosen the wrong path to protect these differences, the results would have been ruinous for Europe as a whole.

“After 1945, led by men of vision, they tried a new way. They sat down with former enemies to hammer out agreed institutions which settled relationships and preserved differences. No one would have believed in 1945 that by 1992 they would be moving towards the United States of Europe, with the Germans still German and the French still French. One thing is certain: they would never have achieved it had they continued to dwell on the past and call up the ghosts of the past. That approach would have led, as it always had done and as it does in Ireland, to conflict in every generation. Can we in Ireland not learn the same lesson? Can we not sit down with former enemies, with those whom we distrust, and hammer out institutions which will settle our relationships and preserve our differences?”

In the end, in the years up to 1998, the warring parties heeded his call and that ‘hammering out’ led to the miraculous Good Friday Agreement. Now that the dreadful Brexit conundrum has been put to bed for the foreseeable future, let men and women of moderation and goodwill – the vast majority of Irish people, I believe – redouble our efforts to continue to build towards a shared, prosperous and harmonious (but not necessarily politically united) Ireland. And let us do it through small, confidence building steps, and as people who remain – against all the odds – part of the greatest of all modern peace projects, a shared, prosperous and (for most of the time) harmonious (but not necessarily politically united) Europe.


2 ‘Secret Facebook group reveals bitter tirades and abuse of Sinn Fein’s opponents’, Irish Times, 19 December

This entry was posted in General, Ireland, Europe and the world, Northern Ireland, Protestantism, unionism and loyalism, Sinn Fein. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Is the UK exit from the EU an opportunity to turn Northern Unionists towards Europe (and Ireland)?

  1. Frank Dolaghan says:

    An excellent article which I would totally endorse

  2. Philip Mc Garry says:

    Thoughtful article.
    I agree entirely that the DUP have committed a huge act of self- herm and in potentially permanent decline;. The main challenge now for free thinkers is how to prevent SF’s brazenness further poisoning relationships and reversing the positive progress of much of the last two decades.
    PS Seamus Mallon book was brilliant.

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