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North parties agree Brexit practicalities not strategy

An overlooked debate in Croke Park drew wide-ranging visions, though no Unionists (or SDLP)

On Sunday 28th August Dublin’s Croke Park hosted the all-Ireland football semi-final between Dublin and Kerry, with Dublin emerging victorious. As celebrations were taking place around Dublin that evening another significant event was taking place in the city. Prominent representatives from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Republican Sinn Féin and Sinn Féin assumed their places on the platform in the Royal College of Surgeons for a debate titled ‘Brexit-what does this mean for the North?’. The debate which was organised by the 1916 Clubs took place in a fitting venue in this the centenary year, having been one of the garrisons of Easter week in 1916 which was held by the Irish Citizen Army under Michael Mallin and Constance Markievicz. All the speakers were given ten minutes to outline their argument before the debate was opened to the floor for questions and answers. The original participants included representatives from the SDLP and Traditional Unionist Voice who failed to materialise on the night, and a representative from the UUP who withdrew hours beforehand mysteriously citing “irreconcilable differences”. The DUP had previously refused to send a speaker, leading RSF President Des Dalton to open his remarks with: “I had looked forward to engaging with them on ideas about the future direction of the Irish people as a whole… It is sad that Unionist representatives could not take their rightful place here tonight to debate issues vital to the future of all Irish people”. However, minus the SDLP and unionist parties, the debate got underway as organiser (and founder member of the 1916 Clubs) Oisín Mac Giolla Mheana outlined the governing rules of the debate stating that it would take place on the basis of ‘mutual respect’.

Return of a hard border?

On 23 June this year 55.8 % of voters in Northern Ireland opted for ‘Remain’ in the Brexit referendum; despite this result, come late March 2017 it is due to be led out of the European Union as Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is triggered by British Prime Minister Theresa May. The DUP advocated a ‘Leave’ position as did Irish Republican parties such as Republican Sinn Féin and Éirígí. A quick survey of the Falls road in Belfast will reveal worn and wind-battered ‘Vote Leave’ posters belonging to Éirígí, stating “Vote Leave for independence, for democracy, for freedom, for Europe, for Peace”. The constitutional position of the North has led to widespread speculation on the return of a ‘hard border’ with the South of Ireland. Although Sinn Féin campaigned for a Remain vote, upon the announcement of a Leave victory Sinn Féin described the result as an opportunity and immediately called for a border poll on Irish unity. During the Dublin debate Sinn Féin speaker Matt Carthy MEP argued that “constitutional change is now in the hands of the people of the North and South”. Carthy’s arguments echo those of the Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Martin McGuinness who has asked that the views of the majority of people in the North, who voted for Remain, be respected and has argued that the North should be exempt from Brexit.

The democratic will of Northern Ireland

Throughout the debate speakers’ arguments were collectively couched in language of ‘democracy’, ‘sovereignty’ and ‘mandate’. Sinn Féin’s Matt Carthy argued: “I’ve spent my life hearing you must respect the democratic wishes of the people of the North. I say that right back. We must now uphold that”.

Carthy proceeded to cite the Good Friday Agreement stating that it was endorsed by 71% of people in the North of Ireland. Interestingly, Carthy’s arguments appeared to suggest that Brexit is not compatible with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. The words ‘constructive ambiguity’ are often used, particularly in academic narratives regarding the Good Friday Agreement, suggesting that it contained necessary ambiguity; however, the Agreement does not contain ambiguity. The consent principle established clearly that the North of Ireland will remain within the UK until the majority of people within Northern Ireland decide otherwise. Any ambiguity that was present existed regarding the way in which the nationalist and unionist blocs sold the agreement to their respective bases. It is therefore unsurprising that while Matt Carthy and Martin McGuinness are calling for a border poll, the DUP’s Nigel Dodds has rejected any stalling over the triggering of article 50 and has stated “on 23 June, the British people as a whole gave a clear mandate for the UK government to leave the EU”.

Who holds the power?

But Remain campaigners are not taking defeat quietly and recently a cross-party group (Sinn Féin, SDLP, Alliance and the Green Party) initiated a legal challenge against Brexit stating that the North of Ireland has a veto over any constitutional change; a veto which they argue emanates from the Good Friday Agreement. Brexit has arguably opened a debate on the constitutional position of the North but has simultaneously re-emphasised the supreme authority of the British government’s legislative powers in the North of Ireland, leaving political figures such as McGuinness powerless to intervene, thus resurrecting old antagonisms regarding where power really resides in relation to the North. Republican Sinn Féin President Des Dalton argued that ultimately: “the vote that counted is the one in England. Brexit demonstrates the fundamental highly undemocratic nature of the UK”. The RSF President framed Brexit around issues of sovereignty and independence and rejected Provisional Sinn Féin’s calls for a Six County border poll stating that it would “fly in the face of Republicanism”. The traditional Republican position rejects a Six County vote on unity, arguing that it is tantamount to a unionist ‘veto’ and argues instead that the unit of decision-making should be on an all-Ireland basis.

The unit of determination regarding Irish unity has assumed a central point of antagonism and division in the contemporary political period. During the Hume-Adams dialogue of the late 1980s Provisional Sinn Féin rejected the SDLP leader’s argument regarding what would become the consent principle. In correspondence to Adams, Hume stated: “Whether or not the unionists may or may not have a right to a veto on Irish unity, they in reality possess such a veto” (SDLP correspondence to Sinn Féin, St Patrick’s Day 1988). Sinn Féin’s response rejected the notion of self-determination on a Six County basis and emphasised “the right of the Irish people as a whole to self-determination” (Sinn Féin correspondence to SDLP, 18th March 1988). However, the Provisional Sinn Féin party subsequently came to accept the consent principle thus providing the background to current calls from the party for a Six county border poll. Theresa May has stated that, post-Brexit, the conditions for a border poll still do not exist, a point also made by the Fianna Fáil speaker Darragh O’Brien.

Sinn Féin versus Fianna Fáil

From early in the debate it was evident which parties were in direct electoral competition in the South of Ireland i.e. Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil.

This dynamic was recounted in a piece by The Irish Times on 29th August which cited remarks between the two speakers including the accusation by Darragh O’Brien of Fianna Fáil that Sinn Féin’s call for a border poll was a ‘knee jerk reaction’ to Brexit. During the debate Darragh O’Brien, Fianna Fáil’s spokesperson on foreign affairs and trade, argued that ‘for four decades Sinn Féin opposed Europe in everything’. Further, O’Brien labelled Sinn Féin’s calls for a border poll a ‘stunt’ arguing that a referendum should be called when it is clear that a vote will pass and argued that at present there is no evidence to suggest that this is the case. In contrast, Fianna Fáil have called for the establishment of a broad-based civic forum and have cited cross-border bodies as of potential use to analysing Brexit and what it means for Ireland. In a swipe at Sinn Féin, O’Brien stated “there is no other agenda at play here. We are not trying to bounce them into border polls etc”.

Irish Unity?! Perhaps not, let’s re-join the British Commonwealth?

The largely overlooked debate on 28 August provides a unique lens through which to view relations between the parties present, the language in which they framed their arguments and the interaction between the various representatives on Brexit. While speakers broadly agreed on points such as opposing a ‘hard border’ or advocating calls for increased cross-border cooperation, it emerged that each party framed the issue of Brexit and its implications for the North very differently, subsequently presenting vastly alternative strategies for the future – ranging from Irish unification to re-joining the British Commonwealth. Fine Gael’s Neale Richmond described Brexit as creating a “complete period of confusion” and argued that Brexit will affect Ireland more than any other EU member state. Richmond advocated re-joining the British Commonwealth asking: “would the world really stop spinning if we were to re-join the Commonwealth? We can’t afford a united Ireland”. While Richmond emphasised that he was giving a personal position rather than a party line it must be noted that this position echoes what some other prominent Fine Gael members have argued in recent times. Senator Frank Feighan is like-minded. On 26 November 2015, almost a year before this debate, a public meeting titled ‘Who fears to speak of 1916?’ took place in the Pearse Institute in Dublin which was also organised by the 1916 Clubs. At that meeting Fine Gael speaker Ted Leddy (a member of Fingal County Council) also advocated re-joining the British Commonwealth. As with the previous debate, this event was dominated by issues of sovereignty and democracy. In stark contrast to Fine Gael’s Richmond, Republican Sinn Féin’s Des Dalton argued that the independence and sovereignty of Ireland are paramount and that “attempts at transnationality do not work”. Dalton argued that: “going back to the 1950s Sinn Féin were very clear about what was at work here, what democracy is about breaking the connection with England. The British system is a highly centralised one and the EU was a further extension of that”. Dalton spoke of power being further and further removed from Dublin to Brussels and rejected the “undemocratic and centralised nature of the EU”, which flies in the face of the 1916 Proclamation.

Economic Uncertainty

Since the Brexit vote we have witnessed the pound plummet in value and the chief executive of the British Bankers Association Anthony Browne has speculated that some of Britain’s most prominent banks are making plans to relocate out of London in 2017. Fine Gael’s Neale Richmond has speculated on possible “opportunities to present Dublin as a refuge for companies from London”. The unique position of the North in relation to the UK leaves it vulnerable to economic uncertainty caused by Brexit. All speakers addressed the economic implications for Ireland North and South, particularly in relation to cross-border trade. At present it is unclear how Brexit will affect cross-border economic relations but the Sinn Féin speaker Matt Carthy noted that Brexit has already altered North-South trade. The North of Ireland receives the second largest amount of EU funding as a percentage of regional GDP, behind Scotland. It is also predicted that the farming sector in the North will be particularly affected by Brexit. However RSF’s Des Dalton challenged this bleak outlook, arguing that: “the EU is not Europe. The parameters of the world don’t end with the EU. Two thirds of our trade is outside of the EU”. Dalton argued that the EU is fundamentally flawed and stated that: “talk about reforming the EU is trying to square the circle…there has been increasing opposition to the EU in referendums”.

Ireland’s relationship with the European Union has blown hot and cold as seen during the 2008 referendum on Lisbon. Before the result was announced then Taoiseach Brian Cowen was apologising for it, stating that the people didn’t understand what they were voting for. The proposal was rejected by 53.4% of voters. However a second referendum was held in 2009 which saw the proposal ultimately pass, as 67.1% of voters voted Yes. RSF’s Des Dalton has challenged the language of democracy cited by the other speakers and stated that what happened with Lisbon in 2008-9 was undemocratic – the wrong result was got in 2008 and so the vote was taken again in 2009. Theresa May’s appointment of ‘Brexiters’ into prominent roles suggests that ‘Brexit means Brexit’.

However it is unclear whether the British government can solely trigger article 50 without a vote in parliament. Theresa May has rejected the concept that MPs need to vote on this issue as ‘unconstitutional’. A High Court ruling on 3 November has stated that only Parliament can trigger article 50, not the government alone. The government is taking an appeal to the High Court. Therefore it remains unclear how Brexit will proceed. With such uncertainty around the implementation of Brexit, it is unsurprising that the implications for Ireland or for the North specifically are unknown.

Conclusion: The winds of change

Before the referendum, debate in England was largely framed by the right, particularly UKIP and leading Brexiter Nigel Farage. The Leave campaign was widely labelled xenophobic by its opponents. In the North of Ireland, debate was not characterised in the same way. Republican Sinn Féin’s Des Dalton has argued “there were some unpleasant voices but there were also some democratic voices. There were also some unpleasant voices on the remain side”. Debate in the North was dominated by economic argument and the remain side emphasised the positives which have come from ‘peace money’ which Northern Ireland has received from Europe.

No one knows exactly what Brexit will bring. On 28 October Judge Paul Maguire in Belfast rejected the cross-party challenge to Brexit: “while the wind of change may be about to blow, the precise direction in which it will blow cannot yet be determined”. Speculation regarding a hard border, restrictions on freedom of movement and trade, and implications on EU ‘peace money’ are wide-ranging. Further questions arise over the position of Irish citizens (Irish passport holders) who live in the state of Northern Ireland but work in England, some of whom, working are in the public sector, have received letters stating that their job ‘should be secure’ in the wake of Brexit.

Certainly Brexit means Brexit. Beyond that there is a lot to debate, and a lot at stake.

Marisa McGlinchey