Seriously, Mrs Foster?

10 Oct 2019

Leader of the DUP Arlene foster has taken to task the Irish government for riding roughshod over unionism in Northern Ireland through intransigence and obstructionism. 


It is hard not to simply dismiss her remarks but really, they need to be challenged because the sheer irony in her statement is quite breath-taking. 


If the current proposals from the UK were to gain acceptance by the EU and form the basis of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU, it would provide a mechanism where the DUP could simply block open-border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and there would be nothing anyone could do about it. Of course, this is likely why the DUP are so supportive of the Prime Ministers proposals. For the DUP, protecting the Union is their primary motive in supporting Brexit. One suspects that like Boris Johnson, they believe they can fix the broken pieces after the event. History teaches us that it is never that simple.


Could it be that for the DUP, either a hard Brexit or a Brexit that creates borders between Northern Ireland and the Republic further strengthens Northern Ireland’s place in the Union? One suspects so. But, adopting this position does exactly what Mrs Foster has, I think unjustly, accused the Irish government of.


She appears to ignore the majority of people living in Northern Ireland who voted to remain in the EU and the even greater number who want to see the current border arrangements unchanged. For business, there is almost complete unanimity in the view that border checks will be bad for business. Only this week, Simon Hamilton, now the Chief Executive of the Belfast Chamber who was until recently a senior DUP politician himself, says that businesses are deeply concerned with the Prime Minister’s proposals and want no hard border on this island. 


Perhaps of even greater importance, but not as well heard, are the views of all those people who, since the Good Friday Agreement, have forged new relationships, friendships and networks that cross historical sectarian boundaries by adopting the notion of a shared space. Just look at the work of the Apprentice Boys and Bogside residents in Derry, for example.


It is, with the very best will in the world, hard not to conclude that the DUP want to take us back to a place where, through some sort of veto or political strength in numbers, they achieve a majoritarian guarantee that Northern Ireland remains part of the Union. Such a position would run directly contrary to the Good Friday Agreement which relies on ongoing consent of all the people. 


For most living in Northern Ireland, the border is no longer an issue of major importance because the GFA had essentially made it invisible. This works for most nationalists and, I think for most unionists. 


The border has now become the main topic of concern in the Brexit process. The Government should never have allowed this to happen. While there are numerous very complicated issues around the border and future relations between the UK and the EU, for most people living here, the current invisible border is the critical element in todays generally peaceful Northern Ireland. 


If it is not too late, perhaps it is worth appealing to those in power, not least the DUP, to change tack and create arrangements that respect the progress that has been made. And to be clear, that means not changing the current border arrangements one bit. It means taking the border off the negotiation table completely and protecting the GFA. In relation to Northern Ireland, the British Government is supposed to act as an honest broker. I accept that this probably remains the case, but, respectfully, feel bound to suggest that the current track is really putting the benefits we have accrued from the GFA at very significant risk. 


Peter Hain’s interview with RTE earlier is a most depressing read. He accuses the Government of failing to act appropriately in its role as honest broker and even refers to John Major’s intervention two years ago when he warned the then Prime Minister Theresa May about doing a deal exclusively with the DUP. He paints a picture that essentially means that the result of Brexit will be checks at the border. It all has the horrible feeling of inevitability about it. 


Unless the opposition parties can effectively organise themselves, this is what will happen. 


Professor Duncan Morrow writes that some Brexiteers are content to kill the GFA because they see it as the last major obstacle to achieving a clean break with the EU. One wants to be able to say, ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they do’. Unfortunately, I suspect they know exactly what they are doing. 


For those of us living in Northern Ireland, what follows will be our Brexit legacy.



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