Saturday 1 October 2016

Brexit may enable Ireland to help the EU save itself

Whatever you do, don't panic, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards, this could yet be really good news for the island of Ireland

Published 26/06/2016 | 02:30

Victor: Boris Johnson is by no means a 'Little Englander'. Photo: PA
Victor: Boris Johnson is by no means a 'Little Englander'. Photo: PA

Responding to a seismic political shock that has rocked the globe and needing to distract attention from their failure to get their followers to come out in decent numbers to vote Remain, Sinn Fein went into Little Ireland mode by demanding a border poll about Irish unity.

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They're getting extremely short shrift, not least - as Enda Kenny pointed out - because the British and Irish governments have more pressing matters to attend to than having a pointless, expensive and disruptive vote about something that is way down the priority list of the people of Ireland.

The Scottish Nationalists are also shouting about another independence referendum.

Calm down, dears. The consequences of Brexit will affect hundreds of millions of people in Europe and Celtic nationalists need to wait their turn.

How should Ireland, North and South respond to Brexit?

Cooly and intelligently, I suggest, and in a spirit of mutual good will. There has been a good start with two key people adopting a constructive approach.

First Minister Arlene Foster, whose party was in favour of Leave, is being optimistic and non-triumphalist. Meanwhile, Enda Kenny, having expressed his disappointment without hysteria, urged an acceptance of the democratic decision and a determination to build on the close friendship between Ireland and the UK and the constantly improving relations between North and South by seeking constructive solutions.

Foster and Kenny know better than to start panicking about implications for the Border. Quite apart from anything else, there is plenty of time to work things out. The status quo will operate at the very least for more than two years and there is ample time for sensible negotiations and for politicians, diplomats and civil servants, North and South, to unite to work out together, in a spirit of goodwill, clever solutions to new problems and ensure that Irish people retain in the UK their historic privileges.

Dissidents will try to make trouble and Sinn Fein will huff and puff, but if good people play their cards right, there can be a soft landing and plenty of opportunities to seize.

I had to be confident of that before - after much searching of heart and head - I voted Leave. Nervously.

I did so mainly because the unwillingness/inability of the EUristocracy to give David Cameron a sellable deal convinced me finally that he was dealing with an unreformable institution heading for disaster and that the United Kingdom would be better unshackled from it. I concluded that Ireland, too, would be better off, since the Leave vote would give Brussels, France and the other opponents of change an almighty kick in the pants.

They seemed to learn nothing from the tragedy that is Greece, the scandal of youth unemployment in Portugal and Spain, the precariousness of the euro, the shambles of migrant policies, the rise in extremist parties and the messages from negative opinion polls. Imperialist aspirations and dislike of accountability remained unchecked.

But Brexit is impossible to ignore; it has strengthened euroscepticism and may give reformers like the Irish the weapons necessary to save the EU from itself.

The challenges ahead for the United Kingdom are huge but provide enormous opportunities. It will not be turning its back on Europe - indeed I'd hope there could be some kind of associate membership - but it will be free to make trade deals with countries all over the world.

Boris Johnson, Cameron's likely successor, is of Turkish descent, had an American passport until recently, is cultivated and cosmopolitan and the opposite of a Little Englander. The UK, he emphasised on Friday, was part of Europe and would not be pulling up the drawbridge, but will benefit from escaping a bureaucratic, protectionist straitjacket.

Until Brexit, I had severe misgivings about the prospect of Boris as prime minister, but he's a man for this time.

London is a Labour city, but he won the mayoralty twice for the Conservatives because he is a unifier, rather than a divider, he is a social liberal who loves this open and diverse society and has the eloquence and temperament necessary to convince the young that a vote against corporate and political establishments is to be welcomed and that post-Brexit life could be full of opportunities.

Like most British people, Boris would have no desire to chuck out foreigners now living and working in the UK, nor to keep out the kind of people who make it such a vibrant and successful country. Many Leavers are very proud of the UK's success in integrating incomers but are terrified that uncontrollable mass immigration could damage community cohesion beyond repair. It was because the Labour Party leadership blocked their ears to the worries of long-term supporters whose neighbourhoods were becoming unrecognisable and who were aching to feel that the government had some control of numbers that in the end two fingers were put up to the establishment.

Despite all the bullying by its financial masters, the Republic of Ireland has been closely allied to the United Kingdom as a force for EU modernisation and will, I'm sure, be briefing its clever, articulate and enthusiastic diplomats to press that case.

This challenge is about confidence and courage. To all those young people who think that old people voted Leave for the worst of reasons, you should know, as I do from innumerable conversations, that grandparents and parents had you as their top priority, but that mostly they knew more than you about how the world works and vague idealism is not enough.

Here's to the future! With intelligence and a common determination to see off loyalist and republican reactionaries and wreckers, the two parts of Ireland can flourish.

Sunday Independent

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