Nationalists and unionists need to discard their illusions about Brexit. The gap is dangerously wide.

We begin with two different  views of the impact of Brexit in Northern Ireland;  from first, the historian and Irish Times columnist Diarmaid Ferriter, contrasted later with DUP MP Nigel Dodds.

In 1998, at the time of the endorsement of the Belfast Agreement, Fintan O’Toole observed that “Northern Ireland is now a place that is arguably unique – a place that nobody claims and nobody owns, a place that is free to become whatever its people can agree that they want it to be”.

The problem now is that such freedom has been denied.

It also remains to be seen what impact it will have on the 1998 Belfast Agreement, which includes the assertions that “it would be wrong to make any change in the status of Northern Ireland save with the consent of a majority of its people.

And that recognition will be given to the right “of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose, and accordingly confirm that their right to hold both British and Irish citizenship is accepted by both governments and would not be affected by any future change in the status of Northern Ireland”.

Fintan O’Toole, quoted favourably by Ferriter plainly exaggerates the extent of Northern Ireland as Utopia ( the land of nowhere).

Their argument is that Irish citizenship confers EU citizenship on northerners who opt for it. Removing it by Brexit is therefore in breach of the GFA.

But is this right?  It is indeed true that under the GFA and the 1998 NI Act, northerners are regarded as Irish citizens and are accorded British citizenship rights. There may be grounds for grievance when these rights are withdrawn. But look at it another way. How could they continue applying to some northern citizens and not for others within the territory of Northern Ireland?  The constituency has to be the state. And the state remains the UK.

But should not the Republic have been consulted about the referendum in advance? Perhaps, but what could they have said except please don’t?  As one sovereign government to another, they could not have – and would not have – argued for the North to have a veto or an exemption from the vote.  By the same law of states, the Republic chose to join the euro and the UK didn’t.

What about the “status” referred to above? Status here means legal status.   As the Belfast High Court found, that status applies only to the constitutional status of remaining within the UK or joining the Republic and does not extend beyond it to create an autonomous community entirely in charge of its own destiny. Neither unionists nor nationalists want their future to be an autonomous region. They want to belong to a bigger entity.

True Northern Ireland’s political conditions are subject to intergovernmental partnership but that is a different matter.

Do these arguments seem too pedantic and against the spirit of the GFA?  To an extent. The partners sealed the GFA deal against the background of EU membership neither side contemplated leaving. But the risk was always there. Had they wanted to guard against it they should have tried to opt for some form of joint sovereignty. But the unionists would never have bought it and the Irish would probably not have been ready to shoulder the front line responsibility.

Contrast the Ferriter case with the DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds  in the FT (£). Dodds I believe is the DUP’s main ideologue for Leave.

 The UK has voted to leave but that does not mean Anglo-Irish relations are poisoned…..

The EU neither brought peace to Northern Ireland nor obstructed it: it was, and is, irrelevant to whether or not violence is employed by a small minority rather than constitutional politics. Given the trauma of the Troubles, it is irresponsible to conflate peace with EU membership.

On a practical level, the commonality of British and Irish borders is based on pragmatic political friendship. By agreement, the British provide effective air defence for the Irish, so deepening existing information-sharing protocols is just further good work. Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are friends; we work together; we can each choose which multilateral bodies to be members of…..

The border is in the mind of those who want cynically and recklessly to exploit it. The facts on the ground are the proof of the good relations we have built together. Brexit means for Ireland only what Brussels wants to inflict, and only what Ireland wants to accept. We wish our neighbour well.

Nigel Dodds chooses to ignore the Remain majority and comes across as a hard Brexiteer. He seems to regard the physical border as a problem solved. He is silent on vital matters such as access to the single market, the continuation of the customs union, the impact of Brexit on the already slow development of north-south economic development and the problems of growing divergence. He gives an implied welcome to Brexit to differentiate the north from the south in a nevertheless good neighbourly relationship. Although he is decisively in a minority in his own region, he is placing majority unionism in Northern Ireland for the first time since 1922 in synch with the unionism of England. So he would say (quietly I presume)  –one up to unionists.

While all this is mightily unpalatable to nationalists who are feeling ominously disempowered, they should not regard Brexit as the litmus test for maintaining the Good Friday Agreement. The real test is to develop it significantly as the UK withdraws from the EU, including the option of exploring special status which is no threat to the Union.

 

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