Martin McGuinness appears to have reverted to Brexit fundamentalism in an article in the Irish Times. He describes a worst case scenario, “ the biggest constitutional crisis since partition…and insists that “Remain must mean remain.”
From our perspective, what is needed now is an island-wide approach to dealing with this crisis. That is why Sinn Féin called on the Taoiseach to establish an all-Ireland forum to discuss the impact of the referendum, to develop strategies and options to ensure that the vote in the North is respected and to safeguard our national interests.”
He should calm down. The threat to “human rights” has dissipated. He should also not do himself down. The gains of the GFA were achieved at home,with only glancing impact from “Europe.” His aims seem to be first, to stiffen the Irish government’s resolve to press within the EU to keep the border open – an abiding concern to everybody and an outcome which he rightly observes is not within the gift of Enda Kenny and Theresa May; and secondly to put pressure on the British government to come up with Article 50 negotiating terms Sinn Fein approve of.
Have Sinn Fein lost all faith in the British government in the space of a week? If not entirely, does it best concentrate their available leverage to make a stand on terms that are unlikely to be fulfilled, like “Remain must mean Remain” and to call for an all-Ireland approach that unionists at this stage are bound to reject before Northern Ireland’s case is fully considered at Westminster?
There is no chance of the UK government recognising the Remain majorities in Scotland and Northern Ireland as retrospective vetoes against leaving the EU. There are complex legal arguments to be held here on the rights of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and on the GFA as an international treaty, but they will not deliver the ambitious result of “Remain must mean Remain.”
Ten days ago, a different case was admirably made in the joint letter to Theresa May from the First and deputy First Ministers. It looked forward to “ further engagement” with London virtually to recreate the advantages of the status quo after Brexit, while admitting that “it cannot be guaranteed that all of them are deliverable.”
There is marked change of tone in McGuinness’s solo version in the Irish Times. The letter to May disclosed that the north –south ministerial council was an established forum for Brexit talks. Why is this not good enough for Sinn Fein? In contrast with the letter, unionists don’t even rate a mention in what is an all-nationalist, not an –all Ireland proposal in McGuinness’s latest article. But the chances of building a pan-nationalist front as in the mid 1990s on this platform look slim. Sinn Fein’s s traditional habit over adopting a forward position in order to achieve a compromise closer to them works best when they have something to offer, like decommissioning . What he doesn’t seem to recognise is that the Northern Ireland parties will have limited influence on the eventual outcome of Brexit. This not what Sinn Fein are used to.
Is Sinn Fein constructing an alibi for failure, both on the prospects of keeping the border open and against the Irish government’s position which is to cooperate closely with the British at this stage and hold off an all-Ireland approach, even though Fianna Fail seem to favour it?
Meanwhile in Prospect magazine, Paul Johnson the director of the Institute for Fiscal Studies gives a powerful analysis of the limited options for UK tax and spending. In the short term – but only the short term – they look like sparing the Northern Ireland Executive from having to take very tough decisions. And there is a message for the sort of Article 50 terms the UK should argue for.
Britain’s economy will be significantly smaller by 2030 if we end up trading with the EU on standard World Trade Organisation terms—the default arrangement offered to non-EU nations—than would be the case if we retain full or near full membership of the single market. The scale of the difference could be comparable to the long-term effects of the 2008 financial crisis.
Whatever the short-term response and long-term ambition, there is no getting away from the fact that our economic prospects have just got worse. This could be painful in the short term and it is possible that the Chancellor will try to offset this by reining in some of the planned spending cuts and even introducing targeted tax cuts or spending increases. That may be heralded as the end of austerity. But that should not blind us to the fact that there will be a price to pay down the road. If we end up out of the single market and lose a substantial part of the financial services industry, the rest of us will have to pay the huge quantity of taxes that they currently pay, or suffer worse public services. If we restrict immigration of, overwhelmingly young, educated, and hard-working, citizens from the EU, then again the rest of us will either have to pay taxes they would otherwise have paid, or suffer worse public services. An end to austerity in the short run will likely merely herald more tax rises or spending cuts in the long run.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London