Tuesday 23 July 2019

Dan O'Brien: 'With Brexit brewing, we need to curb our anti-unionist tribalism'

Brexit has opened a tribal Pandora's Box. In a time of polarisation this brings great danger, writes Dan O'Brien

Nobel Peace Prize laureates John Hume and David Trimble in 1998
Nobel Peace Prize laureates John Hume and David Trimble in 1998
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

The first duty of anyone who opposes tribalism is to call out their own side when it engages in tribalism. Because members of the English and unionist tribes have been guilty of serious and dangerous acts of tribalism towards 'us' in relation to Brexit does not mean that their words and deeds should be matched.

As John Hume knew and always demonstrated, meeting tribalism with tribalism is not just futile but dangerous. He did not rise to provocation. He always remained focused on de-escalation and reconciliation.

Hume's example has not been followed by my tribe - broadly speaking the Irish, nationalist tribe - in the latest chapter of strife between the two traditions on this island.

Brexit has been a predictable disaster before it has even happened. The effect on relations on this island has already been even worse than almost anyone could have expected. Among other things, there has been a barrage of hostile comments from my tribe, including by people who should know better, about how Britons who support Brexit are stupid, inward-looking, regressive and out of touch with the modern world. It is pointed out again and again that they are ignorant of Ireland and care little about it.

While there is much truth in these charges, all of the 17m people in Britain and 350,000 in Northern Ireland who voted for Brexit should not be tarred with the same brush. Those who support it should not be accused of being bigots and racists for doing so, particularly because there is nothing inherently immoral about Brexit, as is often implicitly suggested. Condemning and stereotyping all pro-Brexit unionists and Britons may satisfy atavistic instincts, but it is an act of tribalism.

The history of this island shows that ramping up tribalism and demonising the other tribe leads down a dark and dangerous path.

One insidious form of tribalism is to pay attention only to the most extreme voices among the other tribe and to discount or ignore more moderate voices. That is exactly what has happened in the Republic when it comes to unionist views on how Brexit is playing out.

The Democratic Unionist Party deserves the opprobrium it is getting for backing Brexit. Either it didn't understand the implications of Brexit for this island or - infinitely worse - it understood what would be unleashed and went ahead anyway with its advocacy of leaving the EU. Northern nationalists, in particular, have every right to be furious with the DUP for this and it is entirely appropriate that their anger is being articulated widely in the Republic's media.

But just as Sinn Fein does not represent all northern nationalists, the DUP does not represent all unionists. Yet south of the Border you will struggle to hear a non-DUP unionist voice in media. Paisleyite bogeymen like the DUP's Sammy Wilson are sometimes to be heard spluttering incoherently on the Republic's airwaves, but listeners are not given the vital context that there is no difference between the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party on creating a border in the Irish Sea, as is currently being proposed by the Irish government and Brussels (AKA, 'the backstop'). Anyone who takes the time to listen to the unionist community will know that the vast majority of those on both sides of the Brexit referendum debate view it as a threat to their position in the UK, including the UUP, which opposed Brexit.

One issue is the Good Friday Agreement. The position of the Irish Government and nationalist parties is that Brexit will undermine the two decades old agreement. This view is frequently made. It is correct.

But there is also a case to be made that carving Northern Ireland out of the UK is a breach of the same agreement. Just last week, David Trimble, one of its architects, wrote "it is clear to me that the Irish side in the Brexit negotiations is undermining the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, riding roughshod over its terms and violating its spirit". His comments got no coverage in the Republic's media. Trimble's view is also the view of the UUP, the party he once led. Again, that position gets no airing.

The reasonable views of this island's minority on such an important matter would be prominent in a truly pluralistic media. That they don't says a great deal.

To repeat: not including reasonable people from the other tribe who have reasonable views is a serious act of exclusion.

What of the specifics of what it contained in the backstop and do its provisions have constitutional implications?

Joining the then "common market" in 1973 had constitutional implications for Ireland. It was for that reason we had a constitutional referendum on joining. The changing nature of the relationship between the EU and its members has had constitutional implications, including the creation of the single market in the 1980s. It is for that reason we have had multiple constitutional referendums since joining. Leaving the EU would also require one.

The backstop, as it currently stands, would involve Northern Ireland leaving the UK's single market.

The argument put forward by the EU, Dublin and many commentators is that checking a few shipping containers is insignificant, particularly as there are already some checks on traffic across the Irish Sea. Moreover, it is argued that Northern Ireland already has different laws on matters from abortion to taxation, so there is no constitutional implication of adding a few more.

This characterisation is partial at very best. In the US, Texas has different abortion laws and tax regimes from other states in the US. But it does not - and cannot - have its own trade deals with Mexico or any other country.

Some functions of government can be devolved without causing the wider union to fray - because states in the US have different abortion laws does not mean checks at state borders. Other functions are different. The reason Texas and the other US states have no powers over customs and single market issues is because it would create barriers along state lines.

When it comes to trade, choices are binary. Northern Ireland will be in the EU's single market or the UK's single market.

If the North were to stay in the EU's single market, it would have implications that can very reasonably be viewed as constitutional. Unionists are not wrong to view it that way. Those who dismiss this view or claim its advocates are making up non-existent problems are wrong.

Consider laws governing the functioning of markets, which account for a considerable proportion of all laws on any country's statute book.

Currently, citizens of the North have as much say as anyone else in the making of EU laws. If the backstop were to come into force, they would be subject to EU laws but, because they would be outside the EU, they would not have an equal voice in the making of new ones. British citizens in Britain would be in a very different position.

The case can certainly be made that this is a price worth paying to maintain the status quo with regards the Border on this island. But it is not incorrect or unreasonable for unionists to oppose it on the basis that it changes their constitutional position in the UK.

There is a further issue in relation to supreme courts.

When Ireland and the UK joined the EU in 1973 it had been long established that European law was supreme over national law. In other words, the decisions of Europe's supreme court (now called the court of justice of the European Union) overrode all national courts on matters of EU law.

If Northern Ireland stayed in the EU's single market, its highest court would be in Luxembourg not London. For British citizens in Britain, things would be different. Their highest court would be in London.

These may seem like arcane legal matters, but it is not unreasonable for someone of a unionist persuasion to view the matter as a major constitutional shift which undermines their position within the UK.

There has been a lot of self-congratulation south of the Border about how we have become a society more respectful of minorities and more willing to respect how they view the world. Alas, we appear to have a long way to go before we afford the minority tradition on this island the same respect.

Sunday Independent

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