The New Hong Kong

It’s just under 19 weeks until Brexit Day and the potential introduction of a hard border in Ireland. It remains a very frightening prospect indeed.

Theresa May’s proposed deal with the EU has been greeted with fury by DUP MPs & hardline Brexiteers alike as a ‘threat to the union’.

Of course the May deal that is being presented as a threat to the union can be flipped on its head. There is also the possibility that the north could become the ‘new Hong Kong’ for the foreseeable future with one foot in the UK market and the other in the EU single market.

If that were to prove a successful outcome with a significant increase in inward investment and more prosperity unionist politicians could then ask nationalists why they would want to leave the union with such a unique economic package on offer nowhere else in Europe. Could the unsettled nationalists of the past two years become settled again if their European and Irish identities are respected and accommodated?

Further integration with the rest of the island or reinforcing the north’s position within the union? The interesting thing is that such a deal could do both. The truth is none of us can foretell the future subject as it will be to economic fluctuations and unexpected shocks.

However there is general consensus that a hard border next Spring is an avoidable and unnecessary economic shock.

The welfare of workers, families and communities must come first.

The deal is far from perfect but it does have something for everyone. The Ulster Farmers Union has given it a cautious welcome and NIFDA sees it as a significant step forward. NICVA has welcomed the progress made towards addressing its key concerns. The Environmental sector is pleased to see that the UK and EU has agreed to non-regression on environmental standards.

For business it is by far the lesser of two evils. Bill Wolsey has urged businesses to speak out in this critical period :

“Now we have an opportunity to do something. We need to encourage our politicians to grasp that opportunity. This is no longer a time to keep our head down,

“We have an opportunity because of Brexit to have a foot in both camps. What an opportunity we have for business and when business is strong, that makes the community strong and it’s good for all.

“Unfortunately we’re represented by politicians, some who have the political vision of Blind Bart, and some who are weighed down heavily by prejudice from the past.

“I think we, as a business community, and the voters of the future, should never forgive them if they don’t take this opportunity to improve the lot for all in this country.

“This gives us an opportunity to make us an attractive investment opportunity for multinational companies.”

The danger for unionist politicians is that the rejection of Theresa May’s deal becomes intertwined with a hard border outcome in March. The risk is that their traditional correlation with standing up for the farmer and local business turns into the party having an association with the new barriers that a No Deal outcome presents.

Unbreakable bonds in politics have come apart dramatically before. We only need look to the crash of the southern economy and the impact it had on the cross-generational voting tradition for Fianna Fáil that existed in a large part of society since the civil war.

The opening up of a schism between the DUP and traditional voting bases should be high up on their risk registers as they plan their way through the next 4 months.

The comments of the past two days indicate that long standing relationships should not be taken for granted.

Nationalists have been unsettled for the past two years. If we come out of not only the EU but the single market and customs union in the next few months it will not only be nationalists that are greatly unsettled but also the business community, farmers and much of what the media refers to as the ‘middle ground’ of northern politics.

That may prove a much greater challenge to the union than Theresa May’s Hong Kong proposal for the north.