Tuesday 19 March 2019

Martina Devlin: 'As Brexit nears endgame, it's up to the people north and south on this island to make it clear that the Good Friday Agreement is ours and not for tampering with'

Anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament on Valentines day. Photo: Getty
Anti-Brexit protesters demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament on Valentines day. Photo: Getty
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Come back Stormont, all is forgiven. Compared with the fog and obfuscation at Westminster, relentless Tory infighting and the writhing of a shambolic political system, quarrels in the Northern Assembly look petty. Nothing was ripped that can't be sewn up again.

Meanwhile, a Stormont-shaped hole gapes through the Brexit debate. Devolved government has been missing and missed for the past two years. As soon as B-Day passes on March 29, a push should be made by Dublin and London to kickstart the Belfast institutions.

It won't be easy. Compromise is required. The DUP needs to surrender its attachment to the Petition of Concern, machinery it used repeatedly to block legislation that had cross-party majority backing. As for Sinn Féin, it will have to drop its support for marriage equality, abortion reform or an Irish language act. I don't mean to suggest those are trivial issues, far from it, but something has to be conceded. Workarounds for progress on those matters can be found once the Assembly is operational.

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At least Northern voices (other than the DUP's) were heard on the Brexit question at Dublin Castle yesterday, when MLAs spoke at the fifth All-Island Civic Dialogue and reiterated the importance of the backstop. By and large, their voices have been absent from the debate, deprived of their platform.

Unfortunately, unionism was a no-show at the event, with neither UUP nor DUP politicians willing to participate. This is a loss for all of us, not least their own communities, and some carrot must be found to make public engagement with the Republic palatable to them.

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern said this week he believed that if it wasn't for Brexit, the Northern institutions would be back in business. There is logic to such a viewpoint. However, once Brexit happens, focus and energy can be redirected towards giving Stormont a new lease of life.

Meanwhile, brinkmanship continues to play out at Westminster and we are no further forward towards an agreed solution. Rather, a zombie-like drive towards crash-out is gaining momentum. Leo Varadkar told the Dublin Castle audience that Ireland is intensifying preparations for no deal.

Theresa May whirls about, giving the appearance of activity - shuttling between EU leaders and her own hardliners - yet nothing of substance is taking place behind the smoke and mirrors. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the prime minister is running down the clock, as Labour's Brexit spokesperson Keir Starmer suggested in Dublin this week.

The logjam in her Withdrawal Agreement is the backstop, which has acquired totemic status, with neither side ready to be seen giving way on it. But the backstop is about the Border and that's concerned with more than tariffs on goods or customs regulations - it goes to the heart of human relationships, family and community life. An open Border protects the peace, safeguards normal life - a hard Border compromises them.

Magic technological solutions for a frictionless frontier don't yet exist, although perhaps they will in the future. Until they do, the British parliament's "alternative arrangements" kite won't fly. Brussels is adamant it won't alter the Withdrawal Agreement, as Mrs May knows perfectly well, but where wriggle room exists is for some words of comfort about the backstop to be added to the political declaration.

Will such a fudge prove acceptable to a House of Commons' majority? The answer will only be apparent when a real meaningful vote is held, as opposed to that succession of pantomime votes enacted in recent weeks. In the last week of March, as close to B-Day as possible, Mrs May will present the House of Commons with a stark deal or no-deal choice.

Will a hard Border result from that vote? Mr Ahern this week gave evidence before a Westminster group, the cross-party Exiting the European Union Committee. When asked whether Irish people expected a Border, he replied: "The Irish Government doesn't want it, the British government doesn't want it, Europe doesn't want it - I think most Irish people take from that 'then we'll definitely have it'." A spine-chilling analysis, all told.

Committee member Sammy Wilson didn't seem to care. Yet there are signs that the DUP is starting to soften its stance on a customs union with the EU. And Arlene Foster may not be averse to a resumption of Stormont, although her party has been the main obstacle to progress there since its focus shifted to Westminster. After all, her role as party leader has been diminished since Stormont's collapse.

Ironically, Mrs May is reliant on Remainers to leave the EU with a deal, according to Dr Katy Hayward, from Queen's University Belfast, speaking at a panel discussion this week at the Institute of International and European Affairs in Dublin. She said it was one of the illogical truths of Brexit - that responsible pro-European politicians would have to help the prime minister avoid a cliff-face departure.

At the same Countdown to Brexit event, Daithí O Ceallaigh, former Irish ambassador to Britain and later the UN, urged Irish negotiators to keep their nerve despite crash-out anxiety. "We have to hold our position and we shouldn't put our toe in the water until the UK government knows what it wants," he said. He expressed concern at the potential negative impact of Brexit on Irish-British relations, with officials no longer having regular meetings through common membership of the EU.

In the post-Brexit universe, diplomatic efforts must be undertaken to improve the relationship between Ireland and Britain. The current British government has behaved disappointingly in breaking the spirit, if not the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement; it has shown bad faith by compromising the agreement for selfish ends. Some say they can no longer be regarded as credible co-guarantors. But bridges will need to be built because they remain our nearest neighbours and our fortunes are bound up in one another.

That said, it is up to representatives of the Irish people, North and south, to insist that this peace treaty, lodged with the UN, belongs to us and we won't have it tampered with. Not by the Tories, nor by its DUP ally.

Currently, the DUP is punching above its weight, determining much of what happens to Northern Ireland as regards Brexit - with repercussions particularly in the Border region, but elsewhere in the Republic as well. This is not just unfortunate but regressive. Hardline unionism, where ideology is the measure rather than what's best for people economically and socially, is taking far-reaching decisions which will affect future generations.

Stormont is one potential way to counteract the DUP's voice. The vacuum of the past two years cannot and must not continue.

Irish Independent

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