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Why the DUP needs to stop gloating about Brexit and put people before party for once

Leave vote in the Euro referendum violated a key plank of the Good Friday Agreement, says Alban Maginness

Published 03/08/2016

DUP leader Arlene Foster talks to the media in the aftermath of the EU referendum result
DUP leader Arlene Foster talks to the media in the aftermath of the EU referendum result

The border was, in a sense, put to bed with the Good Friday Agreement. The constitutional question that had dogged our history and was central to the Troubles was neutralised in so far as all parties to the Agreement accepted the consent principle and that any change to the constitutional status quo could only come about by the consent of the majority of the electorate in Northern Ireland by way of a referendum agreeing to a united Ireland.

It was a sort of scoreless draw that ended the most turbulent and most bloody period of our history. After the Agreement the matter of the border started to gradually fade as the most abiding political issue in the political arena.

Granted that it was never banished from political discourse, but nonetheless other matters took centre stage. But with Brexit the border has come back with a vengeance to bite us.

This is of course an unintentional consequence of those who supported Leave. This is hugely undesirable for us a society. We have sought to rebuild ourselves from the ruins of the Troubles and to create a cross-community partnership. Now the Assembly and Executive are faced with the age-old problem of the border.

This is grist to the mill of those loyalist and republican dissidents who prefer to deal with the fundamental clash of British and Irish nationalism than advance the cause of reconciliation.

Recently at Westminster our local MPs and, significantly, the Scottish Nationalists debated this now-pressing issue. In a cogent and passionate speech Alasdair McDonnell MP said that the referendum has provided "the wrong answer to a question that was not asked in the first place".

He emphasised the destabilising effect that all of this was having on our economy and our politics. He repeated David Cameron's warning about a hard border and passport checks, and the basic uncertainty that this is causing and the potential damage that this could cause to the good work of the Good Friday Agreement.

While the intention of the British and Irish governments is to minimise the damage that the reintroduction of a visible border in Ireland will cause, this cannot be guaranteed. Much is out of the control of both governments and in the hands of the EU.

All who contributed to that debate - including the DUP - agreed that there should not be a hard border between north and south. There is a certain irony that the DUP is at pains to try to persuade nationalists and republicans that they wish to see a soft border. How times have changed.

But the problem remains as to the retention of a soft border, as this is a matter no longer within the exclusive remit of London or Dublin.

The EU has, over 40 years, facilitated the free movement of people, goods and services within the island of Ireland and has gradually transformed how people think about the island as a whole entity.

Equally, the EU is a central aspect of the Good Friday Agreement. The Agreement is rooted and set in the very fabric of the European Union.

European membership was a given at the time of the Agreement in 1998 and it was never envisaged that that might change. A UK exit therefore risks compromising and undermining the Agreement.

Brexit also flies in the face of the will of the 56% majority in Northern Ireland who voted to stay in Europe. The principle of consent that is central to the Agreement has been undermined by Brexit.

It is hard to say, on the one hand, there shall be a majority of the electorate in Northern Ireland to support the Union with Britain and then, on the other hand, say that that does not count when it comes to the union with Europe.

DUP and other unionists argue that it is the consent of the people of the UK as a whole that counts. Nationalists and others argue the opposite.

And there is a logic to this, if one accepts the consent principle as agreed in the Good Friday Agreement.

I am not sure whether unionists realise the full import of their argument, but this is a dangerous argument for unionists to use.

If that were true, that could also be applied to the whole of Ireland as well, something that unionists have argued strongly against for many years.

Even in unionist politics there needs to be some logical consistency. Whatever way you look at it, this type of argument undermines a basic tenet of the Agreement and that cannot be good for anybody.

It is time now for serious reflection on our collective predicament and an exploration of imaginative political solutions, such as a special status for this region.

It is also time for the DUP, in particular, to stop gloating over Brexit and try for once to put the people before party.

Belfast Telegraph

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