” Change should not be allowed to weaken the relationships so painstakingly put together across these British Isles. “

DUP Leader Rt. Hon. Arlene Foster MLA speaking at the inaugural Killarney Economic Conference this morning.

Whilst the referendum was a vote by the British people, the ripples that flow from the referendum result will be far reaching with long-term implications for people well beyond the shores of the United Kingdom.  And I appreciate and understand that nowhere will be more impacted by the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union than Ireland. 

I grew up only a few miles from the Fermanagh/Monaghan border.  I saw for myself growing up how, even during our darkest days, we shared close economic, cultural and social ties across the border.  My own grandmother used to travel back and forward across the border on a bicycle to sell Irish lace in Clones.  Those ties have strengthened since the Troubles ended to the extent that in recent times we have enjoyed an extraordinarily, unimaginably positive relations between our two states. 

I don’t want to lose any of that.  The progress we have made together was hard won.  I lose none of my unionism by saying that I am proud of that progress. We should all be proud of initiatives like the Cancer Centre at Altnaglevin Hospital in Londonderry where patients from both sides of the border are receiving the treatment they need.  And whilst the UK’s exit from the EU has the potential to test the progress we’ve made, it doesn’t automatically mean that everything we have achieved is or will be undone.

I often think that Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are like a semi-detached house.  The houses may look the same on the outside, but, inside, they look different and we do many things very differently.  But no matter how contrasting the interiors are, they are tied together and part of the same neighbourhood and what happens on one side of the fence inevitably has an impact on the other. I know that we are rivals in some respects, but in so many ways success for one of us is success for the other.  As we chart a new course for the future, it is not in our interests to see the Republic of Ireland do anything other than prosper.  Nor does it help any of us if we let the challenges that Brexit brings deflect us from the opportunities that will exist in the future.   We will continue to have our own identities and for our part we will no longer be members of the European Union, but our futures will still be closely connected.

The Democratic Unionist Party supported the UK leaving the European Union but in so doing Brexit is not about pulling up the drawbridge, building a wall and cutting ourselves off from our nearest neighbours. 

But we must all recognise that change is coming as a result of the referendum.  It is our job as politicians to help shape that change but to do so in a way that ensures that those economic, cultural and social ties that have endured through difficult times and have thrived through better ones continue into the future.

Ladies and gentlemen, the question posed by this session – “How will our future politics be shaped by Brexit?” – correctly assumes two things.

Firstly, it acknowledges that Brexit is happening.  Almost since the 23 June 2016, some have laboured under the misapprehension that the will of the people of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union could be, somehow, scuppered or stopped.  They’ve believed that the referendum result can be undone even as time ticks by and we move from the referendum to the triggering of Article 50 to the conclusion of phase 1 of the negotiations and on into phase 2. 

When, this past week, even Jean-Claude Juncker recognises the reality by remarking “Don’t believe those who say that its not going to happen”, you know that it is all but a handful of diehards who don’t believe that Brexit is going to happen.

The second assumption contained within the question is that our politics will change and that Brexit will be the catalyst for that change. Politics will undoubtedly be changed by Brexit.  It is being changed by Brexit.  Change was exactly what the referendum result was all about. 

 A majority of the people of the United Kingdom in the biggest nationwide vote since 1992, voted for change.  The type of change they voted for differed from person to person.

 Some wanted more control over our own money. Many wanted more control over our borders. Others wanted more control over making our laws. Whatever their individual reasons, people wanted change.

And what happened in the United Kingdom wasn’t out of the ordinary.  Electorates across the western world have been turning their face against the status quo.  In the United States, in Germany and in France people have voted for something different.  Different types of change, but change nonetheless. 

 The change occurring across Western democracies isn’t a product of Brexit.  Brexit is more of a symptom than a cause. 

 And let’s face it, the British people have always had a far from enthusiastic relationship with Europe and its institutions.  The opportunity to have their say on the EU after years and years of feeling that successive governments of varying hues were denying them that chance.  And a majority of the British people seized that chance.

 Brexit has changed British politics because people wanted change.  At a national level, I have observed as parties have struggled to understand what the underlying message of the referendum result was all about.  And, equally, I’ve watched as politicians across the island of Ireland have grappled with what the impact will be for this part of the world. 

 It is fair to say that the bulk of the views expressed about how Brexit will shape the future of politics on this island has been underpinned by a sense of concern.  I may well not share those concerns, but it doesn’t mean that I don’t understand or appreciate them. 

 I also understand and appreciate that there is a view that my Party is blasé about those concerns.  That we are motivated by an ideological desire to decouple the United Kingdom from the European Union without any concern for the consequences.  That simply isn’t true.  We believe that there are new longer-term opportunities as well as short-term challenges from the UK’s departure from the European Union.  

 From the UK’s entry to the old European Community to the failure of member states to agree to reform the European Union, the Democratic Unionist Party has been consistently sceptical about Brussels.  When the then Prime Minister’s renegotiations failed to produce anything of substance, we believed that a vote to leave was the only viable option.

 But what we absolutely did not adopt was some sort of ‘devil may care’ attitude as some would suggest.  In October 2106 at our Annual Conference, I set out 5 common sense, reality based principles that would guide the DUP’s approach to the Brexit negotiations.

 They were, firstly, that the whole of the United Kingdom leaves the EU. Secondly, the economic and social benefits for Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom are far more important than our relationship with the EU. Thirdly, any deal must recognise the reality of our geography and of our history. Fourthly, we will work with whoever we need to at home and abroad to get the best deal for Northern Ireland.

 And fifthly, whatever the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, it will not divert us from delivering on our plan to build a better Northern Ireland.

 Those 5 Principles illustrate how, from the outset, the DUP believed that the will of the people should be respected but that it should be respected in a way that was cognisant of the unique set of circumstances that we in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic have and that we as a Party were prepared to work closely with our nearest neighbours to achieve an outcome that worked for people on both sides of the Irish border.

 I have consistently said that the Democratic Unionist Party’s desire is to see a sensible Brexit.  Some critics and commentators have asked if a sensible Brexit means we want a ‘hard Brexit’ or if we prefer a ‘soft Brexit’.  When we say we want a sensible Brexit, as is always the case, we mean what we say.  We want to see the referendum result respected with the UK – as one – leaving the European Union but doing so in a way that achieves the best possible outcome for Northern Ireland, for the United Kingdom as a whole and for the European Union. 

 We want to maximise the opportunities that will flow from our exit from the European Union.  More powers in the hands of devolved administrations. More flexibility for locally elected Ministers to set policies that work for our regions.  And the ability to pursue ambitious new free trade agreements around the world.

 But we also want to be able to continue to trade as freely with the EU as possible. We want to avoid a cliff edge for businesses by having a strictly time limited implementation period. We value the contribution that EU migrants have made and continue to make to our economy and society and we will support a new border policy that is strong but sensible.

 We may well be leaving the European Union but we are not leaving Europe and we want businesses, students and researchers to continue to have opportunities to foster links with their neighbours through continued participation in future EU programmes that are cost-effective and bring tangible benefits.

 And in Ireland, we want to retain the Common Travel Area and for our border to remain open, recognising the daily reality that tens of thousands of people cross it freely north and south to go to work, to go to school and to go to college. 

And we absolutely don’t want to see the creation of a hard border on the island of Ireland.  We value the trade that has developed at pace between Northern Ireland – and the entire UK – and the Republic in recent years. The UK market is critical to many Irish sectors and especially agri-foods with 40% of Irish food and drink going to the UK.

 The Irish market accounts for just over 30% of all of Northern Ireland’s exports and trade from Northern Ireland to the Republic rose by more than 16% in the last year.  It is, in short, an incredibly valuable market for Northern Ireland businesses.

 But so too is Great Britain.  More so, in fact.  Of the £26 billion worth of sales by Northern Ireland firms that are outside of the region, 56% go to Great Britain.  Northern Ireland trade with Great Britain is worth 3.7 times more than Northern Ireland exports to the Republic.  It is, by far, our biggest external market.

 t was for that reason that my Party objected to the originally proposed text of the Joint Report on progress during phase 1 of the Brexit negotiations.  We could not countenance anything which created a border down the Irish Sea and potentially cut Northern Ireland businesses off from their biggest market.  We welcome the final text of the Joint Report as a significant improvement on the first draft.

It means that – in the event of no agreement in phase 2 – Northern Ireland businesses will retain unfettered access to the whole of the UK internal market and that, if required, any regulatory alignment on issues of North/South co-operation will be for the entirety of the United Kingdom.

It is my hope that we do not have to rely on any fall-back position and that we can agree a comprehensive trade agreement between the UK and the EU.  Such a deal is evidently in the best interests of both the United Kingdom and Ireland given our close trading relationship. 

Maintaining Northern Ireland’s economic and political status as an integral part of the United Kingdom is absolutely crucial to me and my Party.  To think anything else would be as foolish as believing that the Taoiseach or the Tánaiste desired anything other than Irish unity.  But while we will always battle for our own national interests, we must also battle for our mutual interests. 

 I am under no illusions.  Achieving an outcome that satisfies the core objective for Northern Ireland businesses to continue to enjoy barrier free access to the Great Britain market whilst also maintaining a frictionless border on the island of Ireland will require some novel solutions.  Equally, we must learn lessons from how phase 1 was handled. 

Whilst, ultimately, there was a satisfactory outcome that permitted progress to phase 2, the United Kingdom and the Irish Government will need to be very mindful of the potential impact for all of us on the island of Ireland, and all those involved in the negotiations should approach this stage with the seriousness it requires and learning the lessons from phase one. 

The atmosphere going forward needs to improve and in particular negotiators need to be careful not to rush for the microphones at the first opportunity.

Our interests may not always be the same but there are surely more things that will unite us in this second phase than divide us.  For our part we are under no illusion how difficult and complex the discussions over the coming months will be. And our mutual interests will not end on the day the UK formally leaves the European Union.  The United Kingdom may be leaving the EU but the common interests that we share across the British Isles will remain. 

 The Belfast Agreement couldn’t possibly have foreseen an eventuality like the United Kingdom exiting the European Union.  But within the structures created by the 1998 Deal there is, I believe, an institution that could serve us all well in the post-Brexit world.

 

The East-West Axis has perhaps always been the poorer relation of the Three Strands of the Agreement and, arguably, the British Irish Council has failed to live up to its potential.  The North South Ministerial Council, by contrast, has functioned well and has already shown the capacity to adapt to the circumstances created by Brexit by agreeing a set of joint principles back in July 2016 when our institutions were still up and running.

I well remember how during those long negotiations that led to the Agreement in 1998 how having an East-West entity in place was viewed as crucial as a counter balance to the North South institutions.   There was perhaps less attention paid to how it would it would, in reality, develop into the Nordic Council like body that it was compared to at the time. 

 I believe that the British Irish Council has played a valuable role over the past 20 years and I can recall in different Ministerial capacities useful engagements with counterparts from across these islands, but Brexit creates an opportunity to reimagine the British Irish Council and transform it into something closer to what was originally envisaged.

 Whether it be in agriculture, transport, energy, telecommunications, the environment or security, there will still be much for us to learn from each other and, crucially, much for us to continue to co-operate together on. 

 Let us look at the Nordic Council example.  Since 1952, the 5 Nordic nations and the three autonomous territories of the Faroes, Greenland and the Aland Islands have through the Council and the Council of Ministers co-operated between their legislatures and governments on a wide range of policy areas. 

They do this even though some of the Nordic nations are members of the European Union and some are not, while some are in the Eurozone and some are not. 

 Is that not the sort of example we should emulate across the British Isles?  The UK exiting the European Union ought not to become a barrier to continued co-operation on issues of ongoing mutual interest.  It especially shouldn’t become a barrier when the infrastructure – in the guise of the British Irish Council – already exists that can allow us to continue to work together as closely as ever on issues of shared interest. 

 It is my intention to raise this issue with the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Tánaiste in any upcoming talks and discuss what adaptations might be needed to future proof the British Irish Council so that it might aid us in maintaining and enhancing that close co-operation across the British Isles that we’ve come to cherish.

 Ladies and gentlemen, change was the question posed by this session.  And yes, Brexit will bring change.  Quite how all of that change will manifest itself remains to be seen..  But the change does not have to be total any more than it has to be negative. 

 Change should not be allowed to weaken the relationships so painstakingly put together across these British Isles.  As challenging as finding a suitable solution might seem, there is no good reason why our own issues on this island should present any threat to the progress we’ve made.  I value the relationships we have developed too much to do anything that would jeopardise them.

 But, whether we voted to leave or voted to remain, whether we are citizens of the United Kingdom or citizens of Ireland, we must accept the reality of the referendum result, refrain from the continued refighting of the referendum, and seek the sensible, mutually beneficial outcomes from the complex negotiation process ahead that will serve us all well.

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