Tuesday 16 July 2019

Colette Browne: 'Burning issue in the North is a no-deal Brexit - as the politicians bicker about rebel songs and bonfires'

'DUP leader Arlene Foster felt so strongly about the footage of some players singing ‘Come Out Ye Black and Tans’ as a band parade passed their bus in Aughnacloy on Saturday that she wrote an opinion piece for the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ calling for “meaningful action” to be taken against those involved.' Photo: Reuters/Clodagh Kilcoyne
'DUP leader Arlene Foster felt so strongly about the footage of some players singing ‘Come Out Ye Black and Tans’ as a band parade passed their bus in Aughnacloy on Saturday that she wrote an opinion piece for the ‘Belfast Telegraph’ calling for “meaningful action” to be taken against those involved.' Photo: Reuters/Clodagh Kilcoyne
Colette Browne

Colette Browne

If there was ever any doubt that politics in Northern Ireland exists in some kind of bizarre twilight zone, the controversy over Tyrone GAA players singing a rebel song on their team bus should put that to rest. DUP leader Arlene Foster (below left) felt so strongly about the footage of some players singing 'Come Out Ye Black and Tans' as a band parade passed their bus in Aughnacloy on Saturday that she wrote an opinion piece for the 'Belfast Telegraph' calling for "meaningful action" to be taken against those involved.

Evidently, the apology of Tyrone GAA manager Mickey Harte, for the "unacceptable behaviour of some of the panel", wasn't enough to quell the outrage.

Meanwhile, members of Ms Foster's own community are currently constructing enormous bonfires, on which Irish Tricolours and effigies of nationalist politicians will be cremated this week. I must have missed Ms Foster's considered opinion piece about these sectarian anachronisms and threats to public safety.

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'Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said that given the instability in the UK, and the heightened risk of the UK crashing out of the EU on October 31 if Boris Johnson becomes prime minister, it was time to start seriously planning for a Border poll.' Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
'Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said that given the instability in the UK, and the heightened risk of the UK crashing out of the EU on October 31 if Boris Johnson becomes prime minister, it was time to start seriously planning for a Border poll.' Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

At least one of those bonfires in Armagh is so big, and so dangerous, that residents in a nearby block of flats have been ordered to evacuate by their local housing association.

Instead of the bonfire being dismantled or reduced in size, residents have been told to flee and access emergency accommodation so that they at least will be safe if their homes burn down during the festivities.

Politics in the region is so broken, and so divisive, that this is a solution that is deemed most reasonable by local government. The mind boggles.

Is it any wonder then, that in an area in which bonfires, parades and rebel songs consume so much political energy, that political institutions, starved of attention, have been left to wither and die?

People in Northern Ireland have not had a government for more than two years now, with the DUP and Sinn Féin unable to countenance working with each other to restore power-sharing.

Given former sworn enemies Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley found the ability to compromise and form a government in 2007, it beggars belief that the current crop of so-called political leaders have not been able to do likewise.

To have abdicated this responsibility when the impact of a no-deal Brexit looms large, threatening lives and livelihoods across this island, is unconscionable.

Underlining the existential threat posed by a no-deal Brexit, our own Government published a revised Brexit planning document yesterday which pulled few punches. "A no-deal Brexit will be an unprecedented event, bringing with it disruption and severe negative economic impacts," it said.

"[It] poses risks for the Good Friday Agreement and raises profound political challenges and lasting societal impacts for Northern Ireland. The prospect of operating outside the EU with no deal would be extremely serious for businesses, large and small, and for the overall economy of Northern Ireland. It would also have potentially severe implications for North/south co-operation."

The problem is that the DUP either does not believe, or does not care about, this analysis, while Sinn Féin, which is locked out of Stormont and whose abstentionist policy has locked it out of Westminster, is helpless to do anything to stop it.

Instead, it has been left to the Irish Government to try to be a strong voice for the nationalist community in Northern Ireland, most of whom are horrified at the prospect of leaving the EU and the return of a hard Border.

Unable to seriously influence the Brexit debate in the UK, which has grown increasingly demented as time has gone on, Sinn Féin has now decided that a Border poll holds all the answers.

Speaking on RTÉ Radio 1 yesterday, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said that given the instability in the UK, and the heightened risk of the UK crashing out of the EU on October 31 if Boris Johnson becomes prime minister, it was time to start seriously planning for a Border poll.

Pressed on the timeline she envisioned for these preparations by presenter Seán O'Rourke, Ms McDonald (below right) remained coy and refused to give specifics. All she would say is that "it could happen very, very quickly".

Actually, it couldn't. In the unlikely event that a Border poll was conducted in the next year or two, which revealed a majority in favour of a united Ireland in both jurisdictions, it would be many years before such an eventuality could be realised.

Given the reforms that would have to take place, on both sides of the Border, of voting, political institutions, the health service and policing - to name but a few trifling details - there would be many years of preparation and planning before a united Ireland could become a reality.

If Brexit has taught us anything, it is that referendums which try to distil complex questions into a simple vote can be dangerous and destabilising - and there can be no doubt that a Border poll is not an answer to the multifarious problems that have been posed by Brexit.

Ms McDonald is correct to say that a dialogue would have to presage a Border poll, but that dialogue would have to be ongoing for many years before such a vote could credibly be held.

Sinn Féin, of course, has the right to advocate for a Border poll and many of its voters both in the North and in this jurisdiction support such a measure.

But a Border poll cannot be proposed as some kind of easy escape route from the worst excesses of Brexit or a convenient way to evade the imposition of a hard Border if the UK crashes out of the EU.

This is especially true when we are, currently, about 100 days away from a drop-dead date on which the UK could imminently leave the single market and the customs union, precipitating a genuine crisis.

What is needed, instead of more magical thinking, is for politicians in the North to get real.

For a start, they could try sitting around a table together and acting in the best interests of the region as a whole, instead of allowing their sectarian differences to continue to fester.

They could try addressing the concerns of businesses, farmers, students, elderly people and civil society groups about the risks posed by Brexit - instead of bickering with each other about parades and rebel songs.

If they don't, and political and economic stability on this island is sacrificed on the toxic bonfire of the vanities that is Brexit, history will not judge them kindly.

Irish Independent

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