Is Northern Ireland’s cross-community case against Brexit trundling off to hell in handcart?

So is this election about Brexit? In fact, it is much more about each of the parties and their direct needs. Mrs May, seemingly unassailable in England and Wales is using it to break back into Scotland, and it will double nicely as that second referendum the Blairites have been calling for.

The 48% will become considerably less than it has been since the election. In Northern Ireland, the demise of the majority Remain opinion is almost assured.  Brian Feeney thinks it can only be about what it’s always all been about: the oul sectarian carve up.

Newton Emerson thinks he’s found a canary that squawks and confirms Brian’s hunch: the non-invitation of Sylvia Hermon (a Lady who has certainly put her anti-Brexit vote where her mouth is).

How was this not noticed during attempts to woo the Green Party? North Down MLA and Green leader Steven Agnew expressed initial interest in an anti-Brexit pact but said it was “essential that it goes beyond the boundaries of nationalism and unionism.”

The best place in Northern Ireland to do that would have been within the boundaries of Agnew’s constituency, where the Greens have by far their highest vote – nearly 14 per cent in the last assembly election – and where this could be uniquely critical in saving an anti-Brexit MP.

Even if Lady Hermon has no interest in a pact, ‘progressives’ should have urged the Greens to give her a clear run. Why did they not do so?

As an ex-North Downer, I’ve a few hunches.

One, neither the SDLP (whose idea this anti-Brexit pact actually was) nor Sinn Fein ever give much thought to what happens in North Down. It is far too Protestant for either of their candidates to make much headway. Nor could they offer any positive value to the incumbent MP.

Two, Sylvia wouldn’t welcome the approach. Having few opponents, she, like many of her predecessors, is largely allowed to her “reason and judgment” with a freedom from her electors’ prejudice that Burke would have envied.

Three, whilst we are all focusing on the subtext of these party manoeuvrings, Northern Ireland’s majority (cross-community) case against Brexit appears to be going to hell in the proverbial handcart.

That may be a lot to do with the nearsightedness of our politicians, or as Tom Kelly has argued in the BelTel that Northern Ireland is just too small for any kind grown up win-win deal? Newton again:

While most of the hostility to Alliance in recent years has come from unionists and loyalists, the 10 per cent centre scenario is mainly a threat to republicans. It creates an indefinite obstacle to reaching the simple majority required to dissolve the union.

Swallowing the centre whole is not a plausible nationalist objective – Brexit is not that drastic a problem (at least not yet). But breaking the centre up and reclaiming its nationalist-background voters is another matter.

Demands for a pact have already split the Greens from Alliance – rejecting a pact, Agnew accused Alliance of sectarianising the question.

And, maybe…

The next split to occur will be among centrist voters. Refusing point blank to engage with an anti-Brexit pact will alienate many of those from a nationalist background, while appearing in any way to humour a pact will alienate many small-u unionists.

All of this supposes any of us have a clue about what sort of Brexit we are supposed to be in favour of or against. Keeping it hidden appears, at least in Britain, to be the key to Mrs May’s successful colonisation of majority public opinion.

The Tories are galvanised behind the idea that the only possible Brexit is the mysterious one that May will present to the country as a done deal some time in the future, and for which she wants her mandate up front. So, perversely, the UK will vote twice in as many years on leaving the EU, and most people will still be none the wiser about what that really involves.

This doesn’t feel accidental. It suggests that there is something wrong with the way we conduct campaigns in this country, so the headline issues do not get proper scrutiny. And it suggests there is something dodgy about Brexit that those who keep campaigning for it don’t want to be properly scrutinised. [Emphasis added]

If we take the view that all this can ever be is a parish shadow play, we’re never going to get down asking the right questions about what our politicians are promising us, or to review what they’ve actually delivered.

The continuing dematerialisation of Daisey Hill Hospital and the weird disappearance of Bengoa and SF’s ten-year plan to fix Health is a poignant case in point. Whilst everyone else squabbles, the DUP walk off with the high prize of an irreversible exit.


  • Richard

    There is nothing ‘dodgy’ about Brexit. The Government has been clear about what they regard withdrawal from the EU as involving: withdrawal from single market, customs union, European court. What this will end up meaning in practice does not depend upon the government alone, but the positions adopted and decisions taken by, and with, 27 (plus plus) other EU countries and regions. The demand to know what the outcome of this process will be is just Remain and electioneering sloganeering. Should we expect a vote on the outcome of negotiations? Whatever the outcome, some ‘hard’ Brexiteers will probably object, hard Remainers certainly will, in the middle everyone will find something to like and something to oppose. Surely, a government with what used to be called a ‘Doctor’s Mandate’ authorizing it to do the best it can in the negotiations, is preferable. Though, actually, a bit like the last parliamentary vote and this election itself, I suspect that the logic of the situation will eventually require a vote in parliament on the final deal.

  • Roger

    Irish Times, 1995
    ‘Connacht ‘Lifers’ refuse divorce’

    Connacht, whose electorate strongly rejected divorce in the recent referendum, continues to be a source of concern for Dublin. ‘Connacht voted no. Our right must be respected. We’re not having it’ said Mayo West TD Augustus Conway at a recent ‘Marriage-For-Life’ event held in Ballina. Despite the pro-divorce national outcome of the referendum, province-wide protest against divorce which is expected to be legislated for within the next two years continues.

    “We want a special status. No divorce in Connacht’ shouted Deputy Conway. A more nuanced view came from Galway West TD, Daniel Brennan: ‘We seek special arrangements for Connacht so divorce law won’t apply here’.

    Taoiseach John Bruton under the banner ‘National Ireland’ continues to reject the calls for an opt-out for Connacht. “We will have Green, White and Orange’ divorce for all parts of Ireland’ he insists. The divorce drama continues. Tensions remain high. Will Connacht prevail? Only time will tell.

  • Brian Walker

    Theresa May is calling the shots by doing all she can to polarise the Brexit debate along party lines. So far, it’s working to her advantage. The NI parties are obligingly falling into line.
    May’s tin ear to Celtic positions seems deliberate as well as instinctive. We’re back to the unitary British state where it really matters and she is relying on majoritarian acceptance of “a good deal” to blunt the forces of nationalism.

    This is big picture politics guys.

  • Anon Anon

    Too many parties with too many competing pressures. And crucially, there is no hope of it achieving anything. May has made clear there will be no special status, and the local parties nor the Irish Government not the EU have provided a plausible way out. Any pact is just noise in that context. You’ll never get the Activation energy needed to make bonds.

    If there was a real plausible chance of a new UK Government reversing the decision, the pressure on Alliance would be unbelievable. The pressure would come on SF too, to guarantee they’d take their seats and vote for the needful. But there is no hope.

    So it’s back to fracturing on sectarian lines, with maybe some cracks in the centre consensus for sticking. It can’t really be other.

  • Peggy kelly

    “… the DUP walk off with the high prize of an irreversible exit.”

    And potentially the most damaging “prize”. It’s like winning the lotto and finding your life in ruins just one year later. What looked like a mesmerising win turns out to be a curse.

  • Nevin

    “This is big picture politics guys.”

    Majoritarianism prevails in big and small picture politics; just take a look at voting patterns and whinging in our not-so-super local councils.

    “May’s tin ear to Celtic positions”

    Perhaps anti-UK and pro-EU positions would be more apt.

  • Nevin

    “Is Northern Ireland’s cross-community case against Brexit trundling off to hell in handcart?”

    Naomi Long ripped the camouflage from the pretend cross-community strategy, leaving the SDLP vulnerable to a SF takeover in Foyle and South Down; Steven Agnew dithered.

  • the rich get richer

    Yes .

  • Barney

    A lot of unionist voters were pro UK and pro EU unfortunately they lost the xenophobic referendum in Britain but won here.

  • Karl

    The danger for unionism is that Brexit and their and the British attitude is in danger of waking nationalism in ROI, less from a romantic ‘a nation once again’ sense but in the more pragmatic approach to wealth conservation.
    When John Bruton comes out saying the approach by the UK govt to Brexit will have dire financial consequences for the whole island and goes on to accuse Boris of misleading the British public then you know theres a radical rethink afoot in the ruling party on Irish UK relations.
    ROI might just have the balls to use EU to leverage some real concessions from the UK govt in the negotiations.

  • Fear Éireannach

    The point is that May and her gang have not been clear but have continually obscured the situation with lies and simplifications. While stating that the UK will leave the single market and customs union, and that NI will not have special status she also stated , most likely fraudulently, that “In particular, we must pay attention to the UK’s unique relationship with the Republic of Ireland and the importance of the peace process in Northern Ireland“.

    In NI, since the GFA people have become used to a lot of big talk but with the parties backing down and settling things at the end of the day, arguably Arlene Foster’s cúpla focal is perhaps a recent example of this. Consequently, not all voters in NI have fully taken on board that the British are willing to entirely overthrow the entire settlement in NI. Some more moderate unionists will troop along to this pact without considering that they are supporting the end of the GFA, and other centre ground and nationalist voters will have a false sense that “they’ll sort something out eventually”. The lies from May, Brokenshire, Davis et al have encouraged this passivity so that in NI, the place which will be most badly affected by Brexit there has not been a single demonstration of any consequence opposing it.

    And while the British government’s intentions for Britain may not be changed, the nature of special status for NI is up for discussion, except sectarianism and party political advantage have prevented any such discussion.

  • Fear Éireannach

    A doctor has some obligation to do what is best for the patient, May is only interested in what is best for the Conservative party.

  • Paul Hagan

    Withdrawal from single market, customs union, European court (do you mean ECJ or ECHR?) all sound pretty dodgy to me, however well supported they might be. If you’re livelihood or career depend on some of the outcomes (such as a hard border) it’s far from electioneering to inquire as to what outcome is sought.

  • Katyusha

    I know you’re tying to attempt a reductio ad absurdum, but you picked a terrible example. Differences in marriage laws within one state are not unknown, even in the UK. To give just one famous example: And Scotland didn’t even have a devolved administration of its own at the time.

    If Ireland had devolved government or was federalised, as has been proposed many, many times over the years, there would be absolutely no reason why Connacht would not be able to opt out from nationwide changes in marriage law. Perhaps we would then have unhappy couples flocking across to Athlone or Ennis to file divorce proceedings.

    The devolved regions of the UK have no such luck. It’s the Tory way or the highway, in the disunited kingdom.

  • Roger

    The regions of Ireland have no such luck either. The outcome is the same for all unlucky regions.

  • Katyusha

    Ireland doesn’t have devolved regions. As of this moment in time, anyway.

  • Anon Anon

    No one believes it. The Unionist parties don’t believe it, the Nationalist parties don’t believe it and the electorate don’t believe it.

    We’ll get whatever England is giving. Which is likely whatever the EU is giving. The only route out is a United Ireland, and hey, we’re back to politics as usual.

  • Roger

    When it comes to national referendums or membership of international organizations for which being a state is a requirement, the U.K. has no devolved regions either.

    When it comes to deciding what bin charges are, both Ireland and the UK have devolved regions.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    “using it to break back into Scotland”

    Good luck with that. Nicola Sturgeon is on +14 just now whereas Ruth Davidson is on -21. Some tory revival!

  • Katyusha

    Sure, sure, bit the point was that when it comes to marriage law, the UK has different jurisdictions. So using marriage as an an example of something that must apply on a national level is pretty weak.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Well, at least there is a clear choice – either dry land, or the deep blue sea and the devil.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    The ‘forces of nationalism’ are now on the beginners slopes of a steep upsurge. As the bankruptcy of May’s position becomes clear, and the costs of Brexit start to show their teeth, the impetus for independence (or for joining the republic), will become irresistible. Saor Alba!

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Ignorance is bliss, eh? But you are right in a way. Scotland is not a ‘region’ but one of the four constituent parts of the UK, which has had, and will shortly have another, national referendum on leaving the empire.

  • BonaparteOCoonassa

    Yes. And she’s not even very competent at that. Under Cameron, “Cowgirl Ruthie” in Scotland had a pretty free hand and gained some popularity. Now under May she has to toe the line, for instance the “benefits for rape” plan, and consequently her ‘popularity’ such as it was, has taken a nose-dive. Just before the election, too. Planning eh? who needs it.

  • Richard

    Fair enough. But the government has clearly indicated it is not seeking the outcome of a hard border, but a soft border. Whether it can secure that through negotiation is not entirely in its hands. Inquiries should be addressed to Brussels not London.

  • Fear Éireannach

    The border is soft at present, it is London that is seeking to change it, they and they alone are responsible for this mess.

  • Fear Éireannach

    Perhaps I should have said, the Conservative Party in England.

  • Roger

    I think you’re missing the point. Brexit in the U.K. like marriage in Ireland isn’t ‘devolved’. That divorce could in theory be is irrelevant. ‘Special Status’ and really ‘Special Arrangements’ (of any substance) for Northern Ireland are as off the cards as the equivalent re divorce for Connacht. Those banging on with these empty phrases make as plausible a case as my fictional ‘Marriage 4 Life’ campaigners.

  • Katyusha

    The point is merely that your analogy was rubbish. If anything, using marriage as a comparison just illustrates how many shades of grey can be accommodated, which makes people who like to stick rigidly to points and jurisdiction of the law at this moment in time look rather silly. Not everything hinges on words on a statute book; in fact, its intrusion into people’s everyday lives is rather small – even the lawmakers themselves only pay cursory attention to it. If there was a popular campaign to change marriage law in Connacht, people would simply ignore the state rather than fight it. The same thing happened with water charges: whereas SF and PBP brought vocal minorities onto the streets, the majority of people just never bothered to pay the charges. In the end, the government simply gave up. Democracy fromm the ground-up, rather than the top down, which is the only model the legal eagles can envisage.

    It’s also rather silly to use Ireland as an example here, not only a bastion of parish-pump politics but a place where state decrees only have a marginal impact on people’s behaviour. Here’s the thing, Roger. Northern Ireland already has de facto “special status”. Unless checkpoints and guards are deployed at every border crossing, people will just ignore that it exists. Only a fool would take official records from the region at face value. In that case, it is the politicians and lawyers who bang on with empty phrases, for the real world doesn’t correspond to their proclamations. Those who think that Northern Ireland won’t become a, well, area of special economic activity, are living in a dreamland.

  • Roger

    Around what we were discussing until now, I don’t think I can add much more. I’ve made my point. You’ve made the point you think mine is rubbish. If anyone reads our exchange, they can make up their own minds.

    Moving on though, I’m curious how you conclude Ireland is a place where “state decrees only have a marginal impact on people’s behaviour”? I’m not sure those paying the marginal rate of income tax in Ireland would agree…

  • Croiteir

    It was just Eastwood trying to con everyone into saving SDLP skin, nothing more nothing less.

  • Katyusha

    Of course they wouldn’t, if they are paying it.In the meantime, tax avoidance is endemic at all levels of Irish society, from small businesses working cash-in-hand,to its politicians working cash in hand, and everyone in between.

  • Roger

    Another endemic problem is the working middle classes getting screwed by tax while generations of sections of society are welfare (tax-payer) dependent.