In Jan Carson’s The Fire Starters, there is a quote: “There is never enough silence to contain all our talking…….we continue to believe that across the sea, Europe (and also the world) is holding its breath for the next chapter in our sad story. The world is not waiting.”
More than anywhere else in the UK, Brexit shifted the ground beneath Northern Ireland. It threw us down on different sides, sides that were also the battle lines that came before. This might cause some problems, thanks, we said.
We’ve done quite a bit of talking over the past three years, more so than usual. We have talked and yelled at one another about Brexit. Some of us wanted a backstop. Others hated the idea of an Irish Sea border. A few wanted to jump off the cliff and into the abyss of No Deal. The language of Brexit rolls off our tongues like its always been there.
Everything has come at a cost. There are new categories, leave and remain, to add to the others. We have new ways to hurt one another and we’ve done it in spades. Brexit leaves nothing but damage in Northern Ireland.
We’ve tried to make other people understand the talking. They listened to us, for a while.
After all of it, nobody got what they wanted. Brexiteer hero Boris Johnson did a deal with Remainer champion, Leo Varadkar. The EU backed them up. The Withdrawal Agreement has no backstop and a border down the Irish Sea. Its impact could be disastrous for the economy in Northern Ireland.
How does it all “end”? With Northern Ireland’s one Brexiteer MP voting against the Withdrawal Agreement. It ends with her sitting quietly while Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party MEPs wave triumphant British flags. It ends with the return of the Assembly and our politicians shuffling awkwardly around the building while they plead for the money necessary to keep the country going. Our MLAs voted unanimously to withhold consent for Boris Johnson’s deal but it didn’t really matter. Nobody, including the EU, really cared.
At eleven o’clock this evening, the United Kingdom leaves the European Union after 47 years.
The narrative for tonight is that it’s finally over. We can move on and focus on important things now. In parts of Britain and the Republic they are already putting Brexit to the back of their minds.
It isn’t over for us. We are being contained in a box with the chaos of the last three years. When the Northern Ireland Protocol kicks in, the Assembly will vote in four years to align with the EU or Britain. If the vote doesn’t have cross community support, we will have to vote again in another four years and so on and so on as long the protocol applies. We get to vote in eight years after the first vote if there is cross community support. Welcome to cyclical hell.
The Protocol kicks in on New Year’s Eve. The next Assembly election is in 2022. We vote to elect Westminster again in 2024. Northern Ireland will vote on alignment in the same year or in 2026. We will not emerge from this without further division. Brexit has the potential to drag Northern Ireland back to a dark place. If we head down that path again the most frightening question is this: will anybody be paying attention?
Remainers will be waiting for tonight with dread. We lost, after all. Some Brexiteers are having a celebration but it will hardly be a night for champagne. You have to wonder if this is what the DUP pictured when they decided to back Brexit: Jim Wells drinking celebratory Fanta outside Stormont.
We need to share space today. People should be allowed to celebrate and mourn. Tomorrow we need to accept a salient fact: we have nobody else but each other right now.
Sarah is a writer and lawyer from Belfast.