Sunday 8 December 2019

Divided North has most to lose from Brexit, but no voice in tough talks to come

DUP leader Arlene Foster needs to move beyond sectarian politics and reach a compromise with Sinn Féin. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
DUP leader Arlene Foster needs to move beyond sectarian politics and reach a compromise with Sinn Féin. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Everyone agrees that special arrangements are essential for the North post-Brexit. Well, nearly everyone - an election-footing DUP is too busy insulting every shade of nationalism to focus on Brexit, other than hug itself with glee that it's happening.

British and a number of EU leaders have expressed support for some form of special status (its details remain unclear), while this week Enda Kenny insisted on a clause in the Brexit deal to allow Northern Ireland to rejoin the EU as part of a united Ireland. It is a sensible precaution, even if no border poll on reunification is on the immediate horizon.

What is on the horizon, however, is Brits in, as opposed to Brits out. The region will come under direct rule temporarily from London if the DUP and Sinn Féin cannot reach agreement on power-sharing.

They are likely to be the two largest parties after voters go to the polls next Thursday, just as they were before the Assembly was collapsed. Has anything changed since MLAs found themselves pitched onto the campaign trail? Brexit negotiations have been taking place without a strong and unified Northern intervention - a distinct disadvantage.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has noted: "Northern Ireland is the most exposed of any part of these islands and yet our voice faces the risk of being sidelined and silenced." Indeed.

Throughout this election campaign, the confrontationalism practised by DUP leader Arlene Foster has been a sight to behold. The DUP is likely to win the largest share of seats - the drumbeating has a purpose, after all, in shoring up the traditional vote - and it will be challenging to do business with her afterwards. But that is surely the lesser of two evils compared with the parties simply delivering their electorate over to an indifferent Westminster.

Loss of devolution would mean British Prime Minister Theresa May as de facto first minister, with an underwhelming James Brokenshire as her deputy. This is a good result for nobody. Preoccupied by Brexit and firefighting on multiple fronts, Mrs May does not have Northern Ireland high on her list of priorities.

Brexit has been a game-changer in unexpected ways. Loyalism sees it as pulling up the drawbridge - a victory over nationalism. Writing in yesterday's 'Belfast Telegraph', Jeffrey Donaldson calls it a "defeat" for nationalism, and refers to Irish and Scottish nationalists' "outraged squeals". Thank you, Jeffrey, for showing us triumphalism remains alive and kicking.

Brexit either welds Northern Ireland closer to the UK - or will force a rupture.

The so-called special status must give Northern Ireland the right to trade on the same terms with Britain as it does with the EU; a foot both inside and outside. Otherwise, if it throws in its lot with the EU but has tariffs imposed on goods and services into Britain, it will be torn asunder financially.

Northern Irish sales and exports figures portray an economy hugely dependent on Britain. Statistics just published, for 2015, show £13.8bn (€16.2bn) in sales to Britain, with £3.4bn (€4bn) to the Republic. Exports to the rest of the EU are £1.9bn (€2.2bn), and £3.8bn (€4.5bn) to the rest of the world. So, modest sales to the Republic and EU compared with guaranteed and established markets in Britain. Clearly, Northern Ireland needs Britain more than the EU.

The Assembly had intended to build the private sector by attracting investment to the North, offering itself as a gateway to the EU, but that strategy is now in tatters.

The peace process has made the 310-mile Border all but invisible. Brexit risks giving shape to it again, however, with customs, trade, legal and regulatory barriers. It is mystifying how the DUP sees this as a victory. Is it possible the party believes support for the leave campaign proves its loyalty to Britain? And rewards will follow?

Post-Brexit, Britain will need to find ways to cut expenditure, and that annual subvention to Northern Ireland is an undeniable expense. The DUP regards itself as wedded to the UK, but a cost-conscious UK may incline towards divorce. Except DUP votes in Westminster could prove useful to Mrs May, and may stay her hand.

Under electoral reforms, there are 90 seats in contention in the Executive as opposed to 108 last year, and some familiar faces may lose out. But in truth it is the Northern electorate which is the biggest loser. It deserves better - not least because of the challenges posed by Brexit.

Change is overdue, but cannot happen until people start voting on policies and stop voting along tribal lines.

DUP supporters may not like the whiff of incompetence and possible corruption surrounding the cash-for-ash scandal, but they do not seem to warm to the UUP's Mike Nesbitt as an alternative. It is to his credit that he gave non-sectarian politics a tentative spin, saying his number two preference would be going to the SDLP. But no member of his party has supported that stance. And still the politics of fear hold sway.

Health, unemployment and low-income issues urgently need the attention of politicians in the North - and then there is Brexit. The latter will damage the all-Ireland agricultural market, with Northern farmers hardest hit, not least because of subsidy loss.

Young people are most likely to vote on substance, but often they are not registered to vote. Currently there are 1.2 million people registered, with some half of all voters falling into the 35 to 59 age brackets. Those are the deciders. And the balance of probabilities suggests that the DUP and Sinn Féin will remain the two largest parties after next Thursday.

Oddly, unionism still hasn't taken into account that the best way to protect its cherished union is by broadening its appeal to nationalists. A cultural mindset adjustment is necessary for that penny to drop - apparently beyond the powers of the current, regressive leadership.

Changing demographics could shift the balance of power within the next decade, when that border poll may be triggered. But the sectarian cancer remains locked into place, as we saw with Mrs Foster's excessive reaction to the suggestion of an Irish language act, when she scattered needless insults.

Enough, already. She needs to move beyond sectarian politics, and to reach a compromise with Sinn Féin in the interests of common purpose.

Is that really such a big ask?

Irish Independent

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