Wednesday 13 November 2019

Editorial: 'Brexit and DUP, time to reflect'

DUP leader Arlene Foster (centre) addresses the media, flanked by party deputy leader Nigel Dodds (left), and MP Jeffrey Donaldson. Photo: Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP
DUP leader Arlene Foster (centre) addresses the media, flanked by party deputy leader Nigel Dodds (left), and MP Jeffrey Donaldson. Photo: Daniel LEAL-OLIVAS / AFP


At a widespread level throughout society in Ireland, there is barely concealed glee at the situation in which the Democratic Unionist Party and unionism in general in Northern Ireland now finds itself following the agreement reached between the United Kingdom and the European Union with regard to Brexit. This satisfaction manifests itself in many forms, from social media memes to comment and analysis presented as informed in much of the mainstream media, and is also to be found widely within the various strands of political and civic society both here, in the UK, and now also in Europe. In essence, unionism, and its traditions and, in particular, its conservative outlook, is viewed with borderline contempt.

While this newspaper may disagree with many of the more hard-line views of unionism, particularly in relation to social issues, we have also long taken a pluralist approach on the coexistence of the main traditions on this island and, as such, reject the manner in which such criticism is expressed towards unionism in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, it is only right to point out that, in the context of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, there is some validity to the concerns expressed by the DUP on the issue of consent within the new deal as negotiated between the UK and EU and to advise that it might be worthwhile for both the Irish and UK governments to further reflect on these concerns.

Indeed, two former UK prime ministers, Tony Blair and John Major, have warned the new Brexit deal could upset the delicate balance in Northern Ireland. In effect, the DUP maintains that the principles of the Belfast Agreement on consent have been abandoned in the Brexit deal in favour of majority rule on this single issue alone. These arrangements will become the settled position in these areas for Northern Ireland. As such, the DUP says, it "drives a coach and horses" through the Belfast Agreement. Mr Blair, one of the original signatories of the 1998 peace agreement, has said the "careful, painstaking" work of communities in Northern Ireland risks being undermined as, rather that there being a hard border between the north and south of Ireland, there is to be one between Northern Ireland and Britain. He has said it is a "shame and an outrage" that peace in Northern Ireland is now treated as some "disposable inconvenience" to be bartered away in exchange for satisfying the obsession of Brexiteers with taking the UK out of Europe. How true. To be clear, both Mr Major and Mr Blair make their point primarily in opposition to the UK leaving the EU at all, yet the validity of their point still stands, however inconvenient it may seem to nationalists in Ireland. It is also true, of course, that were a hard border to exist between Ireland north and south, it too would have driven a coach and horses through the Belfast Agreement. In the context of Brexit, that is the circle which has been most difficult to square.

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It may be that a referendum in Northern Ireland on the Brexit deal will be required to resolve to further satisfaction the consent issue, although the risk that such a referendum would come to be regarded as a border poll is high and this would be an unwelcome development at this point. Regardless, the issue of consent arising out of the Brexit deal is deserving of further consideration. Meanwhile, unionism in Northern Ireland will also need to reflect on its political approach to the Brexit negotiations and its own initial apparent willingness to sacrifice consent to maintain its constitutionally legitimate position in the UK.

Sunday Independent

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