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Can The UK Survive Brexit In One Piece?

06/03/2017 14:59

"Northern" and "Ireland" together are often seen as the most boring words in English. Completely unfairly given Northern Ireland's natural beauty and hospitality. But the shock results of their recent elections are far from dull. They could presage profound change in Northern Ireland, Ireland, and the UK in the chaotic age of Brexit.

In 1998 I joined MPs and union leaders at press conferences in Belfast and Dublin advocating a yes vote in the referendum on the Belfast Agreement, which ended the conflict in Northern Ireland. I urged voters to say yes, without illusions.

The crux of the agreement was mandatory power-sharing between all parties and particularly the dominant nationalist and unionist blocs. It was a bad but necessary form of governance. It is always better to have a strong opposition rather than parties sharing out power and controlling fiefdoms without overarching ideological and political coherence. But peace was the priority and change could come later.

The two dominant parties were the moderate Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, mainly for Protestants and Catholics respectively. They were eventually shoved aside by their more radical versions - the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein. But the deal could probably only be anchored by the extremes.

There was an inherent instability in the partnership because neither had recanted on their favoured long-term settlement. One sought to protect the union with Great Britain and the other sought the dream, for which they had supported the nightmare of mass murder, of a (re)united Ireland. But power-sharing worked after a fashion.

The main parties were confirmed in their positions just nine months back and supplied the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister who, despite the titles, had to work in lockstep. But a scheme to incentivise renewable energy went badly wrong, costing hundreds of millions because it lacked sufficient controls, and blame was laid at the door of the DUP First Minister, Arlene Foster who refused to step aside as this would mean accepting culpability.

At the same time, the iconic Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister and former IRA commander, Martin McGuinness succumbed to illness and his party handed the leadership to a young woman without IRA baggage, and forced a fresh election.

Many assumed the same balance between the parties would result. But there was a ten per cent increase in turnout and the two main parties are nearly even, with 28-27 seats respectively in a 90 seat assembly. They now have weeks to work out a deal to reinstate the DUP and Sinn Fein as number one and two respectively. But the DUP falling below thirty seats has a long term consequence as that is the level at which it can veto controversial laws such as extending gay marriage rights to Northern Ireland, or making Irish an official language.

If the two parties cannot establish a new devolved government, British ministers could reinstate direct rule over Northern Ireland until a new election or a new deal. That could be helpful as difficult economic and political solutions that have been fudged could be imposed. One such policy is boosting integrated education so Catholic and Protestant pupils learn together, while their parents meet each other at the school gates. This could undermine the benign apartheid of Northern Ireland where most Catholics and Protestants live separately.

But Brexit provides a major problem. If the UK leaves the EU, then the soft border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic might become a hard border with static customs and immigration posts, which would be targets for terrorists and obstruct millions of routine cross-border transactions. The disappearance of the frontier for all practical purposes also comforted Catholics that they would not be a beleaguered minority in a Protestant state.

If Sinn Fein beats the DUP next time, it could drive a new dynamic to unite Ireland in the EU. Another independence referendum in Scotland could take it out of the UK and, nationalists hope, into the EU, which could mean another hard border.

The 1998 peace agreement was a triumph of statecraft by John Major and then Tony Blair. Its basis was a carefully crafted phrase by Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Brooke in 1990 that the UK had "no selfish strategic or economic interest" in keeping Northern Ireland. Words counted and so did punctuation. Careless commentators often put a comma between "selfish" and the rest of the sentence. But it was deliberately excluded. The correct version means the UK has strategic and economic interests that are selfless while the incorrect version would mean the UK has no interests.

Words are the basis of statecraft and diplomacy. They are needed more than ever as the reverberations of Brexit signal profound changes in the British-Irish archipelago. Boring it is not.

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