Article published in The Business Post 18/06/2017
On the day after the UK and Northern Ireland election results came in, I was standing at a kiosk in Belfast airport buying a bottle of water and a few newspapers for my flight. “Scumbag”, the man standing next to me muttered under his breath. And once more for effect, “scumbag”, he said again, a bit louder this time and directed at me, before turning on his heel and marching off.
Completely shocked at the rudeness and the intrusion, I wondered for a second was it something I had done. Had I inadvertently pushed against him? And then the penny dropped. I was buying the Irish News, and that said something to him about my heritage, something he clearly didn’t like.
I was born more than ten years before the outbreak the troubles in 1969 and have lived all my life in proximity to the border. I have strong memories of two bodies found within a very short distance of my home. They were bodies of the ‘disappeared’, Gerard Evans in 1979 and Eugene Simmons in 1981.
The incident at Belfast airport last week reminded me again of the fragility of our peace and the tensions that simmer away, all the time. But now I believe there is a strong undercurrent rearing its ugly head once again in relation to cross community views, because of the vacuum created by the dissolution of the Northern Ireland Assembly last January, and the anxiety created by Brexit.
The era that I grew up in has seen the massive benefits of our EU membership, evident in its investment in infrastructural projects such as roads, water and sewarage. But most importantly, investment in communities straddling the border where INTERREG and PEACE funding has encouraged us to face each other in a spirit of cooperation.
The difference it has made to the everyday lives of these communities is immeasurable.
As Brexit looms, the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland is vital. I wrote some time ago to Arlene Foster outlining the importance of Unionist voices participating in the Good Friday Agreement meetings, and I’m still awaiting a reply. So I reiterate here that with the election of a new Assembly they need to give serious consideration to sending representation. For their own sakes.
We also need to ask for a co-chair from the Irish government to work alongside James Brokenshire. The new Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney would be ideally positioned to take up this role. He made history in 2012 as the first Irish government minister to attend and address the DUP annual conference.
It is so regrettable that the voice of the SDLP will no longer be available because two former leaders, Mark Durkan and Alasdair McDonald failed to be re-elected. The only voice of nationalism from a northern perspective remains in the Sinn Féin representation. But progress on these islands cannot be achieved unless we have a common sharing of views and opinions, including those of Unionism.
Cross border bodies are vital to this end and those that exist currently need to be strengthened. The British Irish Parliamentary Assembly, the North South Inter-Parliamentary Association, the North South Ministerial Council and others play a hugely important role, and will become even more relevant as the Brexit talks get underway.
We need to ensure that if Brexit does happen – and in my view it is still an “if” – these bodies can maintain and grow relationships and increase the momentum of dialogue on these islands. As a nation, we seriously need to adopt a fix-it attitude and not an exit attitude, and to stop giving away the psychological advantage by accepting it as a done deal. Yes we have to prepare realistically, but in uncertain times we can keep posing the question, does it have to happen at all, and happily create some doubt.
It is very interesting that in the UK, 1.5 million young people registered to vote for the first time before the elections. Is this because the youth see the world as a smaller place and are not in favour of the divisions that Brexit impose? The outcome of the election offers a clear opportunity to move away from the hard Brexit line that the former Tory government was advocating.
We heard this week the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond – who Theresa May was planning to sack if she got a parliamentary majority – putting himself forward as the architect of a softer Brexit. He is calling it a “pragmatic” Brexit, and he is not the only one using softer language as they prepare to tiptoe backwards cap in hand, asking the EU for continued supports to protect jobs and the British economy.
The question for us, on this island, is what role will the DUP now play and where will they position themselves as the negotiations on Brexit roll out?
The majority of the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain. The DUP represented a minority on Brexit. Yet now, with Theresa May’s reliance upon them to form a government, they will have a disproportionate voice on how Brexit will affect everyone in the province.
The trump card is the Customs Union, which the DUP have stated they want to remain a part of, with no return to a hard border. This is something everyone on this island can agree upon and something we should all actively campaign for. A chink of agreement in any conflicted situation, even a very small one, can be the cornerstone on which to build great accords. The Peace Process demonstrated that.
As our new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar gets his feet under the desk, he needs to get clarity from Theresa May, as a matter of urgency, on what is proposed for the island of Ireland, and in particular the border communities who are once again treading on eggshells as they go about their lives.
In the case of the North, the British and Irish governments are meant to affirm neutrality, and let the politics of the North proceed independently. But now as proposed members of the UK government, can the DUP also be part of a devolved Northern Ireland Assembly which is supposed to have an independent voice?
An inter-government conference or summit has been mooted. It needs to happen, and fast, to allow my friend at Belfast airport to get through his day in peace, without feeling the need to mutter rudely in frustration at fellow travellers.
Declan Breathnach is Fianna Fáil TD for Louth and East Meath. He is spokesperson on North-South Bodies & Cross-Border Co-Operation, and Vice Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement