News Comment

Thursday 29 September 2016

Brexit vote cannot be allowed to endanger the peace process

Reinstating any border controls would be a blow to the North, writes Dearbhail McDonald

Published 25/06/2016 | 02:30

Now the North, which voted to remain in the EU, is likely to become one of Brexit’s biggest victims. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Now the North, which voted to remain in the EU, is likely to become one of Brexit’s biggest victims. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Like thousands of others, I grew up in the shadow of one the British army's many 'observation' bases near south Armagh.

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The massive Cloghogue army base, on the main road between my native Newry and my mum's hometown of Dundalk, was a blight on our childhood, a pervasive and ugly symbol of division and fear.

The three-mile stretch of the A1 between Cloghogue and Killeen was known as 'Bomb Alley' as it had claimed the lives of 24 people between 1971 and 1992.

Rarely a week went by when we did not traverse that 'alley' with our parents or have to detour through back roads through south Armagh when there was a security incident, as there often was, on the main road and rail lines.

The Cloghogue lookout post, and many others besides, generated fear and harassment as British army and then RUC officers - armed to the hilt - pored over our vehicle and its occupants, generating terrifying memories for our young minds.

They also caused untold inconvenience for free trade and free movement when the bomb scares and security checks led to lengthy tailbacks and other disruptions.

The menacing spy posts were installed, ostensibly, to protect the public.

In the end, they served only to antagonise relations between the security forces and the communities they observed with a totalitarian oversight that would have been at home in George Orwell's fictional 'Nineteen Eighty-Four'.

The Good Friday, or Belfast, Agreement in 1998 was undoubtedly the biggest achievement in modern Irish politics.

But for me, it was the demilitarisation of Cloghogue and other strategic bases littered throughout Northern Ireland that was one of the key, tangible components of the Peace Process.

Now you can travel from Dublin to Belfast without any hassle.

And the only reason why you'll know you've crossed the Border at Cloghogue is a subtle change in the road surface and speed signs in miles, rather than kilometres.

Though it is some distance away, possibly two years if not more, the prospect of the reinstatement of border controls - even minor ones - in the wake of Britain's landmark decision to leave the European Union would deliver a harsh psychological blow to the Peace Process.

Demilitarisation and the breaking down of physical customs and security barriers, have helped the still-divided communities in Northern Ireland to break down the barriers in our hearts and minds.

They have also helped to normalise our society and have heralded the prospect of a return to something resembling normal policing after a 30-year conflict.

In all, the Troubles, which claimed almost 4,000 lives, are estimated to have created 500,000 victims, classified as people directly affected by bereavement, physical injury and trauma.

Now the North, which voted to remain in the EU, is likely to become one of Brexit's biggest victims.

Despite the landmark 1998 agreement, the North's political institutions and economy are not fit for purpose.

One in four young people is unemployed and for those that have jobs in Northern Ireland, their wages trail behind the UK by as much as 30pc.

Northern Ireland has, despite its difficulties, attracted decent levels of inward investment in recent years and is set to lower its corporate tax rate by 2018.

This is a move that would help it compete with the Republic and make the island of Ireland even more attractive to investors who wish to access British and European markets.

Northern Ireland also has a thriving creative economy and has won huge acclaim with the hugely successful 'Game of Thrones' series (see panel, right).

We're getting there.

But Northern Ireland's annual income is £13.6bn (16.6bn). And with an annual expenditure of £22.7bn, that leaves the North with an effective deficit of £9.1bn, more than the Republic of Ireland has ever had in any single year.

At this time, politicians across the island of Ireland should be focussing on the impacts of a Brexit on the still volatile peace process and the need to negotiate trade agreements to protect Northern Ireland's vulnerable economy and society.

Instead, we have been subjected to vague mutterings by a truly dejected Taoiseach Enda Kenny that he will do all he possibly can to protect the Common Travel Area (CTA), combined with a reckless, provocative border poll charade by Sinn Féin.

The Belfast Agreement contains a provision for a border poll on Irish unity if, at some point in the future, the majority in the North desired a united Ireland.

But the conditions for triggering such a border poll - one can only be called by the Northern Ireland Secretary in circumstances where there is clear evidence of a public opinion swing towards Irish unity - have not yet been met.

Now, with Scotland mulling a second independence referendum, is not the time to antagonise the unionists, whose sense of vulnerability has been shattered further by Brexit.

Sinn Féin, whose elected representatives have a duty under the Good Friday Agreement to protect the interests of all of the North's citizens, wasted no time in deploying its trademark cynicism by once again calling for a border poll.

Yes, Brexit has raised fundamental questions about the viability of the United Kingdom. But now is the time to double down and support Northern Ireland, including the Catholic community, who also stand to feel excluded by the reinstatement of border controls. This is the time for the island of Ireland to unite, not for erecting borders that divide.

Irish Independent

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