The criticism is well made that British interest in Irish positions is generally self serving and fails to recognise their independent validity. Any slight shift in this is to be welcomed.
The London broadsheets have paid Sinn Fein the rare compliment of taking seriously the party’s think-in at Cavan. It’s worth noting that they have yet to broach the notion that a Brexit solution would be so much easier if Northern Ireland were to join the Republic. Quite apart from any pressure from the DUP deal, if anything Westminster’s more or less united opposition to the EU’s version of the backstop has hardened the pro-union position, at least for now. British unionism still seems committed in principle to automatic support for the Union under a consent principle that also applies to Scotland and Wales..
However the emotional drive for this position remains untested. While the Westminster parties would prefer to leave it there, the issue of the survival of the Union – or Unions – is unlikely to stay dormant over the next few months. The militant nationalist parties the SNP and Sinn Fein are appropriately playing it cautiously, waiting on the outcome of Brexit. In the meantime they are preparing the ground for new drives towards constitutional change.
A secret guide given to Sinn Féin members instructs them to tell the public that taxpayers can afford Irish reunification, that people in the North would retain access to NHS-style healthcare and that there would be no chaos if partition ended.
The draft document, called The Activists’ Guide, was distributed at the party’s annual think-in yesterday in Cavan but was not made available to the media.
A copy, seen by The Times, says that an unpublished Oireachtas report is set to reveal that Northern Ireland would have a “near-balanced budget” after unification. The guide also reveals that Sinn Féin wants a referendum on reunification within five years.
And followed up with an editorial today..
As reported in The Times yesterday, one of the claims made in the guide is that unity would deliver an economic boost to both the North and the Republic, based on a single 2015 study. However, other experts have argued that a united Ireland could well be worse off. That, of course, doesn’t fit the Sinn Féin template.
The questions raised by Sinn Féin’s approach go beyond economics. Several senior party figures have argued that, in a border poll, 50 per cent plus one vote would be enough to mandate a united Ireland. If Brexit has taught us nothing else, we know that when there is a vote on a big constitutional change — and there is nothing bigger than changing national borders — a knife-edge result will entrench division and has the potential to end in chaos. Ireland could be in turmoil for decades. To dismiss concerns about the possibility of violence after such a narrow vote with the line “that day is gone” is hugely simplistic.
The Times Ireland section put a novel nose on today’s report on the think-in, citing this example of Sinn Fein’s softly softly approach to unionists which appears to leave the DUP transfixed and immobile.
Sinn Féin says that a Union Jack could fly over Leinster House in the event of a united Ireland.
Pearse Doherty, the finance spokesman, said he did not expect it to happen but accepted that a discussion was needed on ways to accommodate a unionist minority.
The Daily Telegraph carried a soothing Opinion piece from Senator Neale Richmond, chairman of the Irish Senate’s Brexit Committee and the European Affairs spokesman for Fine Gael
But despite all the hard talk and indeed misplaced accusations from some, there is no changing the fact that whatever type of Brexit plays out, Ireland and the UK will remain each other’s two closest neighbours and ultimately, friends.
Northern Ireland is a unique part of the United Kingdom already as it has unique governance arrangements since the Good Friday Agreement and its regulatory systems already differ from those in other parts of the UK in a myriad of ways. However, none of this makes the Union less strong or Unionists less British.
It is therefore important that we should ‘double down’ on the Good Friday Agreement, and avail of its status as a legally-binding international document as a foundation for our future relationship post-Brexit. Unlike other EU Member States, Ireland will be in a position to maintain a close, bilateral, relationship with the UK through the tools already available. This is, of course, an action taken by the Scandinavian countries through the Nordic Council where Norway and Iceland are not in the EU.
The text of the Agreement itself contemplates the foundation of many of these bilateral institutions, Strand Three of the Agreement outlines the framework for the operation of institutions designed to foster East/West cooperation – such as the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.
The Conference may be a useful body of co-operation post-Brexit and it is this body that perhaps has the most potential to replace the close working relationships enabled through regular attendance at European Council meetings.
Rather than meeting just twice a year, there could be huge benefit in the Conference meeting every month perhaps on a rotating, sectoral, basis.
In the Guardian media commentator Roy Greenslade, who is incidentally a declared Sinn Fein supporter, has resurrected fears for human rights under the GFA after Brexit which have been differently aired in Slugger.
The Conservative government has pledged to repeal the Human Rights Act, which incorporated the ECHR into UK law. Instead it wants to introduce a bill of rights, which will relieve British judges of the requirement to follow decisions by the European Court of Human Rights. It amounts to a breach of the GFA, but this is not a technical, legal issue in Northern Ireland, where rights are fundamental to the smooth workings of its society.
Fears of a further encroachment to human rights centre on the fact that one of Northern Ireland’s major parties, the DUP, which opposed the GFA and opposed EU membership, is also opposed to extensions in equality legislation. It also happens to be the party that keeps Theresa May’s government in power.
That reality has prompted the other major party, Sinn Féin, to call on Ireland’s constituency commission to maintain post-Brexit representation for Northern Ireland’s residents in the European parliament by allocating two new MEPs’ seats.
Greenslade elevates an aspiration for a British Bill of Rights into a “pledge. “ But he’s more than half right; Theresa May and many others chaff at ECHR interpretations which have held up the deportation of Islamist rabble rousers like Abu Qatada. Tory MPs and others argue that “human rights” militate against the security forces when assessing the Troubles record. Furthermore leaving the jurisdiction the quite separate EU Court of Justice arguably leaves other rights unprotected.
The argument will rage over whether a new British Bill should buttress many rights. It will take years. Meanwhile like so much else, the provision for a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights remains deadlocked. And a debate on how Irish and therefore EU citizens’ rights in NI are to protected after Brexit hasn’t even begun.
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