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Why Villiers and Foster need to be careful a Brexit doesn't backfire

By Malachi O'Doherty

Published 22/02/2016

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers
Secretary of State Theresa Villiers

Theresa Villers has compromised her position as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland by declaring her support for Brexit.

She may have forgotten, as others have, how important the European Union is to the peace process. When she remembers, she may be aghast to consider the damage she may be doing to it.

Then she may seek some consolation from a like-minded Arlene Foster, who as First Minister seems to have lost sight of the need to shore up the United Kingdom while defending British sovereignty.

What she is in danger of ending up with is an entrenched English sovereignty and a broken Union.

To recap for them both: when John Hume launched his party into the peace process, singing the praises of the European Union, he was not simply using it as an example of peace-making between old enemies, though it was certainly that. Nor was he just reminding us of the goodwill there that would generate cash, though there was that too.

More importantly, he was saying that the nationalist angst about identity was assuaged to a great extent by both parts of Ireland being in the European Union.

Fears about England trampling on our human rights were lessened by the oversight of a European court.

Unionists may feel that British sovereignty is dented by Europe, but that was largely the appeal for nationalists. Laws made in Westminster and Stormont could be overruled.

Europe, for instance, forced us to legalise homosexuality. Left to the locals, it would probably still be a crime for a man to bed another man.

The question Arlene and Theresa should be asking is: to what extent do they think stability in Northern Ireland relies on Britain staying in the European Union.

It shouldn't take them long to work out that if a large number of nominal nationalists are content in the UK, so long as the UK is in the EU, then their attitudes to the Union might change in the event of Brexit.

They might be even further unnerved if Scotland was then to leave the UK and leave them only with a Tory-led England to oversee their human rights, in a polity that was always only a compromise.

I can see Arlene and Theresa, over a nice cup of tea, suddenly realising that striving for the restoration of British sovereignty might leave them only with England and Wales and Northern Ireland.

Then they might wonder just how much they can rely on the de facto unionists who didn't really want a united Ireland very much after all, but might prefer it to what they have been left with.

They are smart people, but their focus is in the wrong place.

Villiers may have her aspirations for Britain as a sovereign state, but her current job is to keep Northern Ireland stable and that compels her to understand that the most stabilising influence here is the nationalists who waived their aspiration for a united Ireland because the EU was good enough for them.

Mrs Foster doesn't live in Gloucester, where none of this would matter. She lives with a neighbouring community which made a deal with her community to govern Northern Ireland together, safe in the confidence that the whole sovereignty issue could be long-fingered.

It can't if we come out of Europe into a little Britain governed in perpetuity by the Conservatives.

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