Friday 21 October 2016

This is not the hour for riding tigers

Of most concern now following Britain's vote to divorce the EU is our peace process

Fergal Keane

Published 26/06/2016 | 02:30

nowhere to go: Men stand next to an English flag in the ‘Jungle’ camp for migrants and refugees in Calais after Britain voted to leave the European Union. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
nowhere to go: Men stand next to an English flag in the ‘Jungle’ camp for migrants and refugees in Calais after Britain voted to leave the European Union. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

I ran into Mike Nesbitt outside Queen's in the afternoon. He was still reeling. I worked with him when he was a journalist in Belfast more than 25 years ago, when the North was still hostage to the gunmen and the bigots. We both know the value of the journey travelled towards peace.

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"I'm in shock," the UUP leader told me. He looked it. Nesbitt had looked his own support base in the eye and told them unionists were better off in the EU. It took political courage. DUP leader Arlene Foster had given the opposite advice. As it happened, a healthy majority in the North went with Nesbitt's view, the same view as the two main nationalist parties. But as with Scotland, there was no opt- out clause in case the national majority saw things differ- ently. I will return to this.

The referendum result was hugely influenced by emotion. The anger of disparate groups in city and countryside propelled the United Kingdom to Brexit. Now that the choice has been made, emotion is flowing the other way. I dread opening my Twitter feed, so relentless are the predictions of Armageddon. I am particularly suspicious of the "day that changed the world" narrative. The world was changing long before anyone put their mark on a ballot paper for the referendum. Change is not made out of one moment but out of an accumulation of steps, some planned and some utterly accidental or enforced.

There is an unedifying blend of condescension and contempt being directed towards those who voted to leave. There is an assumption that "if they could see the damage they've done" they would change their minds. The old are accused of stealing a future from the young, as if the old were not capable of acting in what they thought were the best interests of everybody. To delegitimise the choice of any voter in this manner is patronising and dangerous. The defining characteristic of public debate these days is the refusal to acknowledge the possibility of merit in our opponent's arguments, or if not merit then at least the willingness to give them a fair hearing. Everybody is a fool or a traitor. Had there been a more inclusive and listening politics, things might never have come to this pass.

The EU became the lightning rod for fear-driven rage. There was much to legitimately complain about. As an institution, it wielded power and influence without the concomitant obligation of accountability. If people found it difficult enough to hold their own governments to account, it became doubly difficult to feel anybody in Brussels was listening. But without public trust and willingness to embrace further political union, joined-up policy-making was impossible. The shambolic response to the migrant crisis illustrated the essential dilemma: Without unified policy-making there would be no swift and coherent action. It was left to the Balkan states and Hungary to cobble together their own solutions as thousands of refugees and economic migrants approached. Suddenly, Europe had become a place of barbed wire fences and riot police forcing back the desperate from its shores.

Confronted with the biggest crisis in its history, some essential flaws in the EU were exposed. Every country along the trail of desperation had its own agenda and responded unilaterally. The Hungarians were not going to listen to the Germans, much less the officials in Brussels. On a hot autumn evening I watched their police hammer the last posts into a new border fence facing Serbia. I think it was then I realised the Europe I had grown up in was being irrevocably changed.

We are back to unilateralism. And it may not stop with the European Union. What about the United Nations? Since the end of the Second World War we have depended on the vast bureaucracy of the UN to prevent another great conflagration and to manage the numerous smaller wars of peace. But national self interest has for years overpowered the idea of serving a universal good. In that sense the Security Council provides a model for the direction in which Europe might be moving.

I am most concerned with where our Irish peace process is heading. There is a working power-sharing government in the North. Relations between north and south have been transformed. The current marching season is one of the quietest ever known. Yet talk to anybody in the 'interface' areas and they will tell you of a sectarianism that has never gone away. Instability in Britain is bad for the North. Suddenly, people are wondering how long it will be before the Scots depart the union. And if they do and Sinn Fein steps up the campaign for a border poll, as they are perfectly entitled to do, what emotions will be roused from their temporary slumber?

One of the bedrocks of the peace process is the notion that neither side has won an absolute victory. That status quo will come under severe pressure in the event of the United Kingdom breaking up.

On the plus side, I don't believe there is a single mainstream politician who harbours any desire for a return to armed struggle. Nor does the overwhelming majority of the people on this island. But it is the public emotions unleashed by dramatic change that demand a wise and united response. This is not the hour for riding tigers.

Fergal Keane is a Special Correspondent with the BBC.

Sunday Independent

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