LAST week I was in and around Belfast to see how the Brexit vote is working in Northern Ireland.
First published in The National, 07 February 2017
Obviously I was there as a friendly neutral outsider, not there to campaign, but a number of the parties were kind enough to make me welcome and discuss whether Brexit is affecting the upcoming election on March 2.
I met the DUP, Sinn Fein, the SDLP and UUP. Sadly, time did not allow meetings with the Greens or the Alliance, but I had a full programme and plenty to discuss – namely, what the post-Brexit prospects are likely to be.
I returned with a deeper sense of foreboding. There is a lot at stake and things are more fragile than even I thought. I’ve been back and forth to Belfast over the years, and it is obvious in the streets that there has been progress in recent years. There has been real investment and development in Northern Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement and the establishment of more meaningful power sharing, but it is all in question now.
The administration fell a few weeks ago when Sinn Fein withdrew support over a renewable heating incentive scheme which has gone massively over budget and seems to have a number of other faults. The First Minister, Arlene Foster, was the minister responsible, if not in charge, as the scheme was going wrong but there is some debate over the extent to which she was properly briefed on the scale of the problem.
So the elections will take place in a few weeks, and campaign posters were in evidence on the lampposts, but otherwise the campaign seems at a very early stage. The backdrop of the Brexit vote is overshadowing the election, with few able to predict how it will all play out. Amongst the parties, the DUP was the only one to advocate a Leave vote, with the others, to varying degrees of activity and enthusiasm, advocating a Remain vote.
Like Scotland, Northern Ireland overall voted to remain, by a smaller margin of 56 per cent to 44 per cent, but there the similarity ends. Our vote in Scotland was unanimous across all local authority areas but in Northern Ireland the vote was rather more split along other lines, and where there is an acknowledgement of a majority for Remain, it is not as strong as here. The UUP also has since changed position on the vote, going with an overall UK result and they are trying to work out the best way to implement it.
There the problems start. Aside from Gibraltar, Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK with a land border with another EU state. It is only in recent years with the re-establishment of peace that the border has started to develop economically and socially.
Any restrictions on freedom of movement would be hugely significant as hundreds of thousands of people cross the border in each direction every day for work. The supply chains for business, especially the farming and food sectors, are so integrated that any more significant a border would be a major detriment.
One example was in the west, where the milk in a cream liqueur crosses the border five times for various elements of processing before being the finished product.
Just last week the Police Federation in Northern Ireland expressed concern that police deployed to guard any border installations would be “sitting ducks” and that the installations would be “propaganda gifts” for those who would welcome the return of violence.
Nobody wants to see a hard border. A succession of UK ministers have promised the continuation of an open border, the latest adjective being “frictionless”. But the promises being made to Northern Ireland are going to be difficult to fulfil, given the same UK Government is making a different set of promises to the UK as a whole.
It’s even stranger that a frictionless border can be promised for Northern Ireland but is an insurmountable obstacle for Scotland.
The issues do have parallels, and I think some similar solutions, potentially. Scotland emphatically wants to remain within the single market, yet if the UK moves to another status then we only have one land border too. We need to think of ways around our common dilemmas.
There are examples of technology being used to govern internal Scandinavian borders, and immigration can be a competence of devolved administrations, as in Canada. Ways can be found, and we all have a common challenge to find them. But the election is significant in other ways too. Who speaks for Northern Ireland will be crucial in the coming months and years as Brexit, whatever it is, rolls forward.
If a power-sharing deal cannot be struck then it will be the UK secretary of state, a minister of the UK Government. Imagine David Mundell speaking on behalf of Scotland rather than our Parliament?
We cannot let the Brexit vote undo all these decades of hard work under the peace process.