For over two years Brexit has confronted us with a near constant wave of news stories and commentaries. In this there is a tendency to focus on the personalities and the political manoeuvring involved – something made more colourful by the exotic range of Tories who have declared war on evidence, expertise and even the physics of cake-eating. However we should never forget that it is important to step back from the day-to-day developments and understand the deeper currents of what has been going on.
The degradation of substantive political discourse in England in particular and its damage to Britain, Europe and the wider world is of genuinely historical dimensions. On the basis of a campaign based on xenophobia and a desire to repeal much of the last seventy years, a tireless and ideologically obsessed group won the referendum. Since then they have been making it up as they go along.
Having once attacked the European Union as some sovereignty and growth-destroying waster, they are now loudly attacking it for refusing to roll over and allow the UK the full benefits of access to the customs union and single market created by the Union.
And in their disregard for the impact of Brexit nothing has been more striking than how little they care or wish to know about its impact on Northern Ireland. In fact, they have gone as far as to argue the absurd proposition that membership of the European Union has had nothing to do with progress in Northern Ireland and that its absence will equally have no impact.
In writing and publishing this book Mary Murphy has performed a great service in not only explaining the importance of the European dimension to Northern Ireland. She has gone much further in deepening our understanding of the dynamics of peace, the impact of different issues on community relations and the long list of essential points which must be addressed if we are to get through the next few years limiting the damage of Brexit.
With an unmatched depth and clarity she has challenged us to step back from the day-to-day commentary and understand that Brexit poses a challenge to Ireland and Northern Ireland which goes well beyond the economic.
This is a work which draws on many different disciplines. Crucially, Mary’s previous work on Northern Ireland and the European Union pre-dates Brexit and as a result she has developed an approach which is not distorted by simply looking at it in the context of the news of the moment.
Of the many important observations in the book one that stands out is the effective linking of an understanding of the dynamics of Northern politics and society post 1998 with the evolving and now deteriorating role of European issues. Her continued close working relationship with the dynamic Brexit-focused research in Queen’s University and in Britain has ensured that her work draws on different North/South and East/West perspectives.
There is no doubt that the euphoria of the Good Friday Agreement and the incredible achievement which it represented has made many people less likely to critically review what has happened since. The point is well made that what developed in Northern Ireland was a “negative peace” – where the absence of violence remained the achievement and we did not fully move on to the substance of delivering reconciliation and prosperity for one of the most disadvantaged regions on these islands.
The immense personal focus which Bertie Ahern and then Brian Cowen put into getting the institutions working and decommissioning completed meant that the process of the peace settlement was front and centre of our politics for at least 12 years after the Agreement. This was so even during the toughest days of the recession. The final element of devolution, the Hillsborough Castle Agreement on justice and policing, was only completed in early 2010.
I think it is an important insight from the literature on conflict resolution that a focus on the institutional architecture which misses the reconciliation and development imperatives is an inherently dangerous one.
There certainly was a commitment to this wider agenda under the Cowen and Browne governments in particular. Both governments provided significant funding for developing Northern Ireland at a time when they were also confronting the worst economic downturn in 70 years. However many of their plans were incomplete before they left office and the understanding of the need to invest in a new deal for Northern Ireland effectively disappeared when they left office.
In the eight years since the final agreement of the peace settlement the reality is that there has been a cycle of complacency, dispute, breakdown and, sometimes, restoration. I see no way of avoiding the fact that the decision of the Cameron and Kenny governments that the time had come to leave the parties to get on with it was a foolish one – and that the regular rhetoric about Northern Ireland having to stand on its own feet was at best ignorant of the reality of a damaged and divided society.
I think it is an absolutely fair comment that the failure to move from ‘an absence of war’ to development and reconciliation with sufficient ambition left in place divisions which are receptive to new polarising and potentially radicalising issues.
This absence of a decisive move to focusing on issues beyond the institutions caused a serious decline in the public legitimacy of those institutions.
It is possible to compare the trajectories of public trust in politics and representative bodies in both Northern Ireland and Scotland from 2001 to 2010 and then to 2015 because exactly similar academic surveys were carried out in both devolved administrations. For the first period there was a roughly similar picture but this sharply diverged later on – with close to one half of Scottish voters saying that the Parliament in Edinburgh gave them more say in the running of Scotland, while only 17% Of Northern Ireland voters said the same about the Assembly.
In a circumstance where an incredible 76% say they have less say or it has made no difference – and 79% say the Assembly has achieved little or nothing – what you have is a growing disillusionment and a crisis of legitimacy. This predates the current blockade of the institutions and the Brexit vote.
In any circumstance Brexit would be a challenge for Northern Ireland – but the collapse of working democratic institutions means that it is now a full-blown economic, social and political crisis.
It is today 563 days since the Executive and Assembly were collapsed because of the funding of a heating scheme. The two largest parties have effectively abdicated the responsibility to provide a democratic forum to represent a community which can agrees on only one thing about Brexit – it represents the largest challenge facing Northern Ireland at this moment.
As Mary Murphy has pointed out, Northern Ireland is today at the centre of debate more than at any time in the past 20 years – yet it has less of a voice than at any time in the past 20 years.
Northern Ireland is being talked about – while its people are excluded from the conversation.
Just as nature abhors a vacuum, the fragile negative peace of Northern Ireland is under strain because of the political vacuum.
I believe this book is a very detailed and eloquent response to those who make the absurd claim that Europe has nothing to do with the Good Friday Agreement. Europe is in the DNA of the Agreement. It provides both a foundation for building trust and a framework for constructive engagement. It softens the edges of sharp identity debates and offers rights and opportunities which come without any filter of sectarian allegiance.
And if we want to understand this all we have to do is look at the pleadings in the High Court in Belfast by the Secretary of State in the Agnew case. In these very detailed pleadings the Tory government states explicitly “it is accepted that the legislative and executive competence of the Assembly and Ministers is limited by the requirement to act [in] compatibility with EU law.”
In addition, it accepts that coordination of relations with the EU is included in paragraph 3 (iii) of Strand Two on the working of the North/South Ministerial Council.
While defending the Agnew and Miller cases in the High Court and the Supreme Court in London, the British government made deeply disturbing claims about its ability to act unilaterally and it has gone as far as to break the convention fundamental to the understanding of the various devolution settlements. It also claimed to have what are called ‘Henry VIII powers’ to enter or abrogate international treaties unilaterally. However for all of this it has said repeatedly that it does not intend to unilaterally abrogate the British-Irish Treaty upon which the peace settlement rests.
So Northern Ireland will, no matter what is agreed, have institutions which ‘assume but do not require’ membership of the EU, which are required to act in compatibility with EU law and are tasked with coordinating with Dublin on relations with the EU.
Of course the wider constitutional settlement must be controlled solely by the agreed mechanism in the Agreement – but it is frankly outrageous that no one has demanded a statement of how these requirements are supposed to work post-Brexit and the British Government has made no effort to make such a statement.
I think it has been an error to miss the opportunity to root the engagement on the post-Brexit future within the architecture of the Agreement rather than conduct it at a much higher level and through press conferences. Yesterday’s announcement that a group of officials will discuss how to keep British and Irish ministers talking in the future is a very weak statement of intent given the scale of cooperation we will lose by them not participating in the Council of Ministers.
The situation today is a grave one. Brexit is threatening a radicalisation in divisions in Northern politics which has no positive side to it. Equally the governments have failed to find a way of creating some common ground on which to build a solution.
Given that points relating to the Common Travel Area and citizenship were contained in the documents exchanged early in the process, so far no negotiated point concerning Ireland has reached the stage of an agreed and non-contradictory text.
Over the coming weeks the substantive nature of the negotiations will proceed at a faster pace and Michel Barnier has tabled as yet not published proposals to try and get an agreed text about Northern Ireland. In his stated objective of “dedramatising” the backstop he must overcome the dramatic claims made by our government in its ill-conceived campaign of self-congratulation last December. In order for him to succeed, and in order for there to be a return to progress in Northern Ireland, we need to address a series of challenges which are within our control.
First of all we have to rebuild relations with different sides in Northern Ireland and with the British government. I am not naïve enough to believe that we can all become allies – our core beliefs are too different – but we desperately need to return to something like the levels of contact and communication which defined all past breakthroughs in Northern Ireland.
Our government should stop talking to parties through the media and make a genuine effort to rebuild contacts. The Taoiseach’s statement that “it’s not my job to deliver the DUP” is wrong in both tone and understanding. Where would we be if Bertie Ahern had said “it’s not my job to deliver the UUP” in 1998 or “it’s not my job to deliver Ian Paisley” in 2007? He, his ministers and his officials worked tirelessly to achieve a foundation of trust and communication without which no breakthroughs would be possible.
We also need a serious effort to re-establish a working relationship with the British government. No one doubts the chaotic nature of events in London, however the level of disconnect is striking. The Taoiseach recently went an incredible 7 weeks without any form of contact with the Prime Minister and there appears to have been a near complete stalling in relations between the government since mid last year.
Yesterday’s meeting was important, but the very fact we had to demand it speaks to how bad relations are. Even in the best scenario we need a rebuilt relationship with London or Northern Ireland will continue to suffer from a lack of strategic leadership from the governments.
I would say finally in relation to communication, the government also needs to start trying to constructively engage other parties here. The move from real consultation to at best the perfunctory distribution of already announced information is not a positive development. If you look at the record of the Dáil you will find that nearly every challenge or alternative proposal is met with a dismissive claim of someone being “irresponsible” or ignorant. There is no acceptance of the good faith of other pro-EU parties and a complete refusal to admit even the most obvious reversals or errors in our own government’s strategy.
We also need to try to take the Brexit debate onto some form of ground where we can begin trying to form a consensus in Northern Ireland.
As Mary Murphy points out, the only shared understanding at the moment is that Brexit is economically challenging and that disadvantaged communities in Northern Ireland are the most vulnerable.
Ally this to the desperate need for a new economic model for Northern Ireland and you have an area where we should be able to have some constructive engagement.
This is why my party believes that we should propose a form of Special Economic Zone for Northern Ireland. It is a very broad concept – but one which no one suggests has constitutional implications.
It potentially offers Northern Ireland the best of both worlds – secure access to both markets. This is a competitive advantage which could finally start delivering real development.
Earlier this week a junior senator was sent out to attack the opposition for failing to develop this idea to a detailed proposal – and in doing this it reinforced once again the lack of understanding of how you reach agreement across communities in Northern Ireland.
What we don’t need is to table a demand and start a negotiation – we need to start trying to develop joint ownership of an idea which can be finalised during the transitionary period.
Europe has been an essential framework for developments in Northern Ireland for decades. Because of Mary’s work and her interpretations of the wider research base, we have a much deeper understanding of this role and how it has changed quite radically over time.
By linking the fundamentals of post-conflict Northern Ireland with the urgent debate on Brexit she has pointed to serious issues and, I believe, has shown us potential ways forward.
It is a valuable and persuasive treatment of an increasingly fundamental issue. No one who fails to read it can call themselves informed about the many challenges which Brexit poses for Northern Ireland and Ireland as a whole.