In democratic societies it is not always the best and wisest people who end up as politicians and political leaders. We have seen that in the USA, the UK and, not surprisingly, little Northern Ireland in recent years. Sometimes the wisest people are rejected by the voters. Below is a Facebook post I received last week from my esteemed friend Professor Duncan Morrow, director of community engagement at the University of Ulster and former chief executive of the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council. In my humble opinion, Morrow is one of the wisest people in Northern Ireland. That was not recognised by the good people of South Belfast who rejected him when he ran for the Alliance Party there in the 2016 Northern Ireland Assembly elections. He is almost totally unknown south of the border, although an article by him voicing similar sentiments to these appeared in the Irish Independent on 4th February.
“There is a painful inevitability about what is happening in Northern Ireland over Brexit. This is, famously, a divided society. Divided, as is known, over identity and borders. That division has been fought out violently, leaving an appalling wreckage of lives lost and damaged, paramilitarisation, institutionalised social division and trauma.
The Good Friday Agreement reached for something else: through an acknowledgement that difference had to be accommodated, that human rights and full equality had to prevail and that every effort had to be directed to reconciliation, we stumbled away from violence. Too slowly of course, so that governments basically dropped reconciliation from the agenda in favour of bringing the most hostile into government – I suspect because that looked like the quicker way for them to get rid of direct responsibility for dealing with history. We have limped along in a kind of half-conflict half-peace ever since.
Still, some things worked: in practice, if you didn’t focus too much on the unresolved sectarianism, endless political antagonism and the lack of real policy to address anything of substance (specifically sectarianism, inequality and establishing a flourishing economy), you could largely get on with your life, and in a much more open and unthreatened way than for the three decades before 1998. A new generation with new issues seemed to be on the way, if allowed.
Which it was, until Brexit. To manage the Conservative Party, David Cameron called a referendum on leaving the EU, which ultimately turned into a campaign to ‘bring back control’ to ‘our laws, our borders and our money’. Except in Northern Ireland, there is no ‘our’ border, ‘our’ laws’ or ‘our’ money except that we also pay attention to its impact on ‘them’. We are existentially interdependent – and every step away from that is a wound.
Here, open borders prevent conflict, not closed ones; sharing and negotiating is the only way to live together, not a threat, and new coalitions need the breathing space of peace to emerge. Instead of focusing on the fragile point of common belonging, Brexit amplified the pressures to assert egotism in a place where domination and ‘me first’ are beyond toxic – potentially lethal in fact.
No post-Brexit deal was available for the whole UK without a deal on Ireland. So Boris Johnson tried to solve it by keeping his hard Brexit and shafting the DUP. To get a closed border in Dover, he had to put the hard border in Cairnryan. So he agreed the Northern Ireland Protocol. The risk now is that everything runs in the opposite direction of ‘control’.
None of this is good. Shafting the DUP is not good. A customs border in the Irish Sea is not good. All of it is worse than what we had. The only thing it is better than is trying to bring back control by imposing a hard border in Ireland, which breaks any notion that the Good Friday Agreement is a new collaborative beginning for relationships between Britain and Ireland. That way lies pariah status for the UK, a trade war with the EU and serious problems with US president Joe Biden.
So we are left with no good options, only less bad ones. We can of course export into two markets without hindrance – which we should get on with. We can mitigate some of the practical issues with supply routes through special deals, and we need to do that quickly. We can reconfigure supply lines over time, and that will happen.
But symbolically there is a border within the UK which was not there before and unionism unsurprisingly feels the chill. And there is no way to take away that bald fact unless the whole UK backs away from hard borders and nationalist ‘control’ rhetoric.
The most difficult part is that this has been obvious from the beginning. For years some of us have been trying to signal that moving away from a system [the EU] which prevents hard borders is disastrous. The predicament of unionism now is the result of not wanting to or not being able hear that and marching on regardless. The result is now a problem for all of us, not just unionism, leaving only the comfortless reality of ‘what else did you expect?’
It is to be hoped that wise heads in London, Dublin, Belfast, Brussels, and Washington will prevail. But that will require effort and attention and there is not much bandwidth for those in a Covid crisis.
But it will also require a break with the terrible logic that Theresa May pronounced after the Brexit referendum – you either come from somewhere or nowhere. Actually we here in these six counties do come from somewhere, it is just a more complicated and fragile ‘somewhere’ than national chauvinism allows.
Interdependence does not make you less. But it requires that international plans are built around complexity rather than shoehorned violently into the straightjacket of ‘us’ or ‘them’ to make them work. Not just because they are an annoying obligation, but because, in fact, making interdependence work is the only meaningful agenda for the future of everyone – and Northern Ireland is but a tiny trial run.”