“Will it be said, when the array of tombs which stretch from end to end of Europe have been multiplied, that there had been plenty of time.., but that the statesmen waited too long and the soldiers took control?”
– Eamon De Valera, address to the League of Nations
I’ve been away over the weekend so I missed Micheal Martin’s speech at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties. The media generally picked up on his observation that Brexit could make the prospect of a border poll much closer than before.
Of course, that’s not quite what he said…
The most urgent thing which is required is an immediate end to the hands-off detachment of recent years.
It is a sad reality that our government and our media have tended to ignore Northern Ireland except when there is a crisis. Meeting the challenge of Brexit is a moment to end this and also to begin rebuilding public faith in politics.
No one can seriously question the deep social and economic impact of erecting a hard border on this island. We have a community of interest which spans political beliefs and we must act accordingly.
It may very well be that the decision of Northern Ireland to oppose the English-driven anti-EU UK majority is a defining moment in Northern politics. The Remain vote may show people the need to rethink current arrangements.
I hope it moves us towards majority support for unification, and if it does we should trigger a reunification referendum. However at this moment the only evidence we have is that the majority of people in Northern Ireland want to maintain open borders and a single market with this jurisdiction, and beyond that with the rest of Europe.
Last week the government confirmed that it is willing to proceed with an inclusive dialogue on defining and promoting an all-island approach to Brexit. This is an opportunity to reach out to excluded groups, to show that a broader range of interests than those articulated by the dominant political parties can be heard.
I have in particular stressed our belief that civil society must be included together with business, unions and professional organisations.
But we also have to insist that the core principles of the Belfast Agreement about promoting inclusive governance be honoured in Stormont. [Emphasis added]
Most striking is his pitch for the power of the centre ground in politics, and not just in Ireland…
The complacency of the post-Cold War ‘End of History’ thesis has disappeared and it is far from clear what will replace it. As we have seen in recent days and weeks, dramatic events are unfolding all the time.
What is most striking is that so far it is the extremes which are setting the terms of the debate.
They fully understand the nature of economic insecurity, cultural suspicions and political inertia – and they have set about seeking to ruthlessly exploit them. They are not in the business of tough choices and credible alternatives.
They are offering easy solutions – providing targets to blame and pretending that all problems can be overcome if only an identified enemy would get out of the way.
And in the face of this there has been a mixture of denial and detachment which has fed a sense of alienation from government, politics and the established media.
The most common response has been to seek a quick return to business as usual. In fact crises have been presented as once-off distortions to be overcome rather than signalling substantial change which must be adapted to.
And this is why time after time, at national and international levels, we see events where the accepted wisdom is proven wrong. Quite simply the gulf between expectations of public opinion and the reality of public opinion has never been larger.
This is not some abstract problem, it goes to the heart of what is today the deepest challenge to democratic societies.
There has been a near complete failure to engage with and understand the ways in which change has impacted on people’s lives and attitudes. This is a detachment which threatens a dangerous escalation in the cycle of distrust, discontent, division and in some cases violence which is being seen in too many places.
If we do not find a way of reconnecting with the people we serve and standing against those who seek to exploit the current detachment then we are taking immense risks.
And on the particular challenge posed by Brexit…
We also face a critical moment in relation to the future of our island as a whole. After the rush of excitement which followed the new dispensation of the Belfast Agreement, the last few years have been defined by drift and disengagement. Growing disillusionment amongst the people of Northern Ireland with politics has been reflected in rapidly declining participation and growing sectarianism.
Last year’s general election saw the return of openly sectarian campaigning to the mainstream. Sinn Féin went as far as to publish a leaflet calling for Catholics to vote for them in order to get one over on the Protestants.
Most dangerously, many marginal communities are showing patterns of disillusionment with politics which could provide a breeding ground for new extremism.
Against this background the Brexit vote has added a new risk. It threatens to set back a model of shared development which, in spite of many problems, has achieved a lot and could achieve much more.
The introduction of new barriers between both parts of this island would potentially set us back decades.
The most urgent thing which is required is an immediate end to the hands-off detachment of recent years. It is a sad reality that our government and our media have tended to ignore Northern Ireland except when there is a crisis.
Meeting the challenge of Brexit is a moment to end this and also to begin rebuilding public faith in politics. [Emphasis added]
He pivots to ‘first cause’…
England is not an extreme country, but there was a dark and unsavoury side to the anti-EU advocacy which helped deliver the England-based majority for the UK to leave the EU. We saw the classic scapegoating of an “other” or a “them” who could be blamed for all discontents.
Their campaign was based on the idea that ‘if only “we” took back power and “they” were kept out we could rediscover a glorious past’.
I have no doubt that this is where you will always end up if you indulge divisive rhetoric and allow it to become part of the mainstream.
The Tory party, once a force for international cooperation, encouraged the scapegoating of Europe, which became a scapegoating of immigrants and ended up with a referendum which threatens fifty years of progress in Europe.
If you look at the strength of the French National Front, Jobbik in Hungary, the Freedom Party in Austria and many others throughout Europe there is an inescapable conclusion – if you indulge the extremes you strengthen them.
It is easy for national politicians to point to it, and to its many obvious flaws, and say that Europe must get its act together. But blaming Europe and ignoring its achievements has become a direct threat to our national and collective interests.
What we must do now is to get through the Brexit issue through a relentless focus and an inclusive process. We must not appease aggressive behaviour on Europe’s borders which has seen countries invaded and partitioned in the name of a new imperialism. Beyond this we have to adopt a new approach where we show respect and take responsibility.
Most of all we must reject the false definitions of Europe’s enemies. We must not co-opt their rhetoric of division and fear – we must fight it by showing tolerance at home and abroad.
You don’t need to know much history to see the parallels of this moment with what happened in the last century.
There is no doubt that our democratic institutions are stronger than they were then, but the growing detachment from politics and falling trust in law-bound international cooperation is a very deep threat.
There is a whole middle section worth mulling on how reporting of politics is breaking down that’s worth reading too.
But in brief, there’s no shortcut to a united Ireland; which can only be achieved through moderation, partnership, the abiding wisdom of people and the value of occupying the centre.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty