“Brexit and beyond” … a tad premature, but… By Jim Dornan

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At the end of January, a group of concerned nationalists held a one day conference at the Waterfront entitled “Beyond Brexit”, and I suppose in normal times the title was a fair call being but two months from the Brexit date of 29/3/19, but these are not normal times and….timing is everything.

The content of the various speeches involved a fair deal of surmising. Nationalists, activists, academics and journalists of various hue took to the stage, and the spectrum went from myself, a concerned member of civic society and long-time political observer who is deeply saddened and frustrated by our current crop of politicians, to Mary Lou McDonald, and everyone tried their best to crystal ball as to what would indeed be Beyond Brexit. Sadly, even at the time of writing now, some three weeks later, we are still in the dark.

Some conclusions could be reached however. For the organisers of the day it was a good one for galvanising the nationalist cause. ‘The border must go, while unionists should be accommodated’ could sum up proceedings.

Brexit talks have been an apparent disaster, and a hard border, which would be inevitable if a no deal conclusion occurred, would be the worst of all outcomes.

Nationalism is generally perceived to be the domain of the “Catholic” section of the population, and certainly the views expressed stretched from very soft to the non-military strategist republican. All imparted their thoughts clearly and succinctly and many stressed the need for recognition of the Irish culture, including language, to be expressed in local legislation.

It would be fair to conclude that the vast majority of those who attended appeared to feel primarily Irish and European, albeit with varying degrees of emphasis.

There was a general agreement that the DUP were out of order, but were simply a symptom of failed political structures, which I personally feel have encouraged rather than diminished, sectarianism. An oft mentioned example was The Belfast Agreement which has not been fully implemented, due to a lack of political will. The DUP’s apparent own goals were highlighted often, but maybe not universally grieved.

Many noted that the economy in NI appears to require a serious amount of subvention, but maybe not as much as some claim, and certainly more than addressable in a “United Ireland”.

There was definitely general agreement that before any border poll is conducted, the people of this island should be furnished with facts. Facts about the consequences for the island’s economies, employment opportunities, pensions, health, education, the digital revolution, security, culture, agriculture, fisheries, immigration and so on.

However, as well as the above positives, the organisers will reflect on the negatives, the biggest of which is that a conference entitled ”Brexit and Beyond” should have been held AFTER we all knew the outcome.

Even before the first speaker arose, they had been criticised for the dearth of unionist opinion on show. Time to fall on the sword on that one. You can’t woo soft unionists, never mind hard ones, if they’re not in the same room. “Equality and respect” are best delivered face to face.

Open division was obvious between the desired timing for a border poll according to the statements of the leader of Sinn Féin and the ROI Minister present.  This was definitely unfortunate, and frankly should have been avoidable. Going forward, this needs addressed urgently. Still, at least it’s now out in the open, but I must say I sensed that most in the Waterfront actually feel that we should await the outcome of Brexit and the presentation of facts and evidence before a poll is called. At present there’s too much white sound out there already.

Biggest criticism was that the day did buoy up and help sustain nationalists, but it made little effort to find new ones.

We are living through intriguing political times in the West.

Populist/popular policies and attitudes are getting a fair wind.

If the final Union of Ireland is to be achieved because it is this millennium’s “Great Idea” mantra, rather than “I’ve started so I’ll finish”, the aim needs to be sold to all the people of this island, North and South, and indeed, internationally, East and West.

We all agree that we live in a divided country, and a division made much worse by the whole Brexit movement. I and 56% of my fellow countrymen wanted to stay in Europe. At least we knew that we wanted that, unlike the 44% who had wildly different views on what goodies leaving Europe would bring to their doors.

When we eventually vote for a new dispensation that may well lead to the disappearance of the Irish border, please let’s hope that the side who win, has a majority around 70/75%. The Belfast agreement requires but a majority of ‘1’, and that’s as it is, but a victory by that number could be tragically divisive.

When the vote to remove the border is held, that is exactly for what the people of this island will be voting FULL STOP. It’s retention, or its removal.

With the fall out of Brexit, the growth of the little Englander genre and the unresolved Scottish nationalist campaign, quite frankly the future choices for the peoples of this island may not be simply retention of the status quo or a new Union of Ireland. Be prepared. Perhaps an extended Dál Riada with Belfast/Béal Feirsde as its lynchpin beckons! Roll on the shoring of Hadrian’s Wall and the building of Boris’s bridge!

Visionaries in many areas of society are thinking what used to be the unthinkable, and it behoves us all to think about what would be the best outcome for our population that will bring, peace, security, economic success, employment, good lifestyle, cultural confidence and a sense of belonging. Could we indeed see a federation of some of the peoples of these Celtic Islands as a real alternative thus allowing the little Englanders to achieve their ultimate dream?

The aims of any movement should be to ‘win friends and influence people’. So who is subject to influence? Well 20% each of the voting electorate choose Sinn Féin (SF) or the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). Which means that 60% choose neither. Of that 60% one third account for the “other parties”. One only vote on big issues…such as the Belfast Agreement, and the border poll would fall into that category. Lastly one third apparently don’t vote, but they are there…..they could be persuaded out of their complacency if the carrot was attractive enough.

Crucially though, all our peoples deserve a dossier of FACTS before going to the polling booth. Facts collated and formatted by experts in their individual areas, and presented by an independent body, rather than any one political party or government. When it comes, the decisions to be taken will be immense. There has to be reasoned input from all our own Northern and Irish Governments and civil services, and those from the E.U., the U.K. and the U.S.

Personally I’d like to see us start again in many areas, such as health and education, but in other areas let’s maximise the best of what we offer on both sides of the border.

The tenets of the U.K. Health Service were and are visionary, that  it meet the needs of everyone, that it be free at the point of delivery, that it be based on clinical need, not ability to pay.

While its magnificent in many areas, it truly is too management heavy, and a Norwegian format could be worth plagiarising.

Eighty four percent of parents in NI when asked, would choose integrated education for their offspring were it left to them. Four to seven percent get it. Enough said.

In the ROI, the IDA have attracted the FDA which has greatly helped to maximise business opportunities.

I could go on, but are you not excited by even the thought of the possibilities of the future? A new beginning for the following generations? A common future for all our peoples?

Certainly all this information must be in the hands of the voters long before polling day, so that discussions on choices in every community can take place.

The demographics are intriguing. Not that all Prods would or will vote for border retention or all Catholics vote for its removal, but censuses show that the 50/50 is getting very close… This alone, when it occurs, will be a massive driver for a referendum.

1921/2021. There is no doubt that in two years’ time there will be much to look back on as both sides rejoice in the early formation of respective governments. This will lead to much passionate rhetoric, reflection and prophecy all round, but it will be a time for true leaders of clear and visionary thought to arise and calmly consider what the next one hundred years could bring.

The eventual fallout of Brexit may well lead to calls for said poll, but we must wait to see firstly  what the evidence for our choices offers, and as a society, discuss same.

Then, when the requirement for a poll becomes ‘the elephant in the room’, that request for same to the NI Secretary of State would best come from the ROI government, albeit following background work from interested parties and movements.

So much at present is pure speculation. In the cold light of day, the obvious correct timing will shine through, but to force the issue at this time is to make enemies before you start, which is really only a sensible strategy on the sports field.

Of course we can’t ignore the words of Macmillan in the sixties when he observed astutely that change could be engendered by “Events dear boy, events”. The unexpected has the ability to shape our future as much as the past does.

I believe that for most the potential economics and lifestyle beckoning will out trump passion. We will decide using our heads and our hearts, though I accept that many will make their call in reverse order.

Neither SF or the DUP can, or should, try to win it on their own. The middle 60% will be the key deciders.

Finally back to “Beyond Brexit” – a bit of a curate’s egg. On one hand a nationalist echo chamber, while on the other, a brave attempt to start a dialogue in terms of teasing out what an agreed New Ireland might look like. A start, but as a society we need an informed and inclusive conversation among us all regarding all options for our future.

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4 Comments

  1. Gearoid Mac Siacais on

    Very thoughful and thought-provocing piece. None of us have a crystal ball Jim. It appears to me that UNIONISM is being utterly failed by DUP. It’s ok to say that but how then do we prevent a lumpen, disgruntled, significant unionist mjnority from feeling trapped in a nationalist state. That surely is the nationalist and rationalist challenge Beyond Brexit.

  2. My thanks to Professor Dornan for this interesting thought piece and it is certainly hopeful for a shared future in NI, however there are just a few small points that I would raise. The Professor might feel a 70/75% majority for consent to Irish unity in a border poll is ideal, but given that the current requirements under the GFA are simply 50% plus, and to achieve a 70% ‘yes’ vote might take a substantial length of time, I feel it is unlikely to gain widespread support, not only amongst nationalists but amongst many unionists under forty-five, for a myriad of reasons: the majority of us have lived our lives as Europeans and wish to remain so, not suffer an interim period of years as non-EU citizens until the threshold of 70% is met; the majority of us view the DUP and their approaches as completely alien to our way of thinking; the majority of us have perhaps more liberal views than our parents and see the Irish republic as offering a better fit for those views now, and Europe as always having done; the majority of us see NI as the poorest and almost the most backward region of the UK, kept that way purely by extreme unionism and we want that changed; and many of us feel very strongly about the UK’s, to our minds, unethical stances on weapons sales, in particular to Saudi, a country that oppresses women and silences people who critique it, such as Jamal Khashoggi; we do not wish to be associated with such policies. There are many more issues that I could quote and hear amongst my mixed religious group of friends under forty-five, some of us parents and others not yet, who really don’t wish their children brought up in the UK now. My other point is regarding the professor’s points on repartition e.g. Dalriada. There are again a number of issues with this: the GFA makes no allowance for repartition and the 2011 census showed that while the protestant/ unionist pop of NI is clustered mostly in the east of the province that distribution is still very uneven. In Antrim for instance, whilst the area around Ballymena might be heavily protestant/ unionist, the area around Ballycastle, Cushendall and the east Antrim coast above Larne is heavily catholic/ nationalist and that is the very area where the shortest bridge to Scotland would be build, a bridge that marine engineers have repeatedly said is unfeasible for reasons of safety, structural integrity, shipping obstruction etc. The professor also mentions Belfast remaining in Dalriada, however the 2011 census showed Belfast as 50/50 split between the two communities so it is likely that by the 2021 census that will have shifted to majority catholic/nationalist. In addition, Belfast contains the only urban Gaeltacht area in NI, within west Belfast, and the level of republicanism and not only nationalism in west Belfast, and now north and south Belfast, is unlikely to be conductive to their agreement to remaining in a repartitioned north, and possibly not peacefully. Even if such a thing were possible, the agreement of the Irish Republic is also unlikely, as the new Dalriada would be annexing the two main ports in NI, Larne and Belfast, with all the financial benefits they bring, as well as the capital city’s business/ hospitality incomes. Why would the ROI agree to reunite with NI, with all the financial risks attached when the wealth of the ports and capital city would remain in Dalriada and therefore with the UK? There are additional points. I enjoyed reading the piece and it raises many interesting issues, but I feel that the ROI and younger people in NI will ensure that unity, when it happens, will pass on a vote lower than 70% and the whole Island will be reunited and not simply parts. Thank you.

    • George Bartley on

      I don’t think Jim mentioned repartition – I read the notional extended Dal Riada as the whole island and Scotland – a lynchpin isn’t usually at the bottom…

  3. Amanda Flood on

    The article states, ‘ Quite frankly the future choices for the peoples of this island may not be simply retention of the status quo or a new Union of Ireland. Be prepared. Perhaps an extended Dál Riada with Belfast/Béal Feirsde as its lynchpin beckons! Roll on the shoring of Hadrian’s Wall and the building of Boris’s bridge! ‘

    If that isn’t a suggestion of repartition I don’t know what is. A border poll isto decide whether the whole of ireland moves forward in unity or not. Creative suggestions such as above are potentially contentious and at a minimum stirring the pot.

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