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Alban Maginness: Brexit has been a disaster for us politically, and the DUP playing hardball further sours relations

Why is Foster's party so recklessly intent on undermining years of progress, wonders Alban Maginness


Warning: Leo Varadkar

Warning: Leo Varadkar

AFP/Getty Images

Warning: Leo Varadkar

The unspoken, but logical and often quietly-thought solution to Brexit, is to do away altogether with the Irish border. In one fell swoop, the problems of hard and soft borders would vanish.

It is, of course, the pressing issue of Brexit that excites - and will continue to excite - such seditious thoughts. This is because the economic absurdity of Brexit matches the economic stupidity of partition in contemporary Ireland.

Almost a hundred years ago the political entity known as the Kingdom of Ireland - governed since 1801 from Kerry to Derry by Westminster, through its administration based in Dublin Castle - was arbitrarily partitioned into two new political entities against the wishes of the nationalist majority.

The unionist minority reluctantly agreed to accept what they saw as a lesser of two evils and adopted partition without any great enthusiasm. This was because it guaranteed their dominant position of power within a truncated Ulster and a continued union with Great Britain.

But partition was conceived as a temporary, not a permanent, solution. Nor was it imagined at that time that Ireland would, as a consequence, develop two separate and parallel economies.

But that is what happened due to Ireland's exclusion from imperial trade and De Valera's damaging insistence on pursuing self-sufficiency as an independent Irish state.

Fast-forward to the 1990s and the creation of the single market by the European Union. It is often forgotten, particularly by Brexiteers, that the single market idea was something encouraged and developed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

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Thatcher, unlike her pro-European Conservative predecessor Edward Heath, hated the political aspects of the European Union, but she was enthusiastic about free trade and saw that the development of free trade on a properly regularised basis across the union would be beneficial for Britain and Europe.

The single market, therefore, was something she promoted and supported. Thatcher, despite her public image as an ideologue, was a pragmatic politician.

Northern Ireland, as a region of the UK, was a direct beneficiary of the development of the single market as it was the only part of the United Kingdom with a land border with another EU state, the Republic of Ireland.

The impact on north-south business was mutually beneficial. It was also transformative, for it created for the first time since partition in the 1920s free trade in goods, services, capital and people.

All obstacles to developing an all-island economy were overcome. An economic united Ireland had accidentally been created through the European single market.

Coincidentally, in 1998 the Good Friday Agreement was created in the political context of the EU. No one at the time imagined there being any other context, other than both parts of Ireland being within the EU.

The Agreement, in essence, neutralised the constitutional issue of the border in Ireland by creating a new and co-operative dispensation within Northern Ireland through power-sharing, and between north and south through all-island bodies.

The Agreement, although textually short in direct reference to the EU, was nonetheless negotiated and politically situated in the mutual context of both north and south being constituent parts of the EU. If that had not been the case, then the agreement would have been a radically different document.

Therefore, the Agreement and EU membership are inextricably linked. Any interference with that calibration with the EU will undoubtedly effect the standing of the Agreement.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is quite right to say, as he did at the weekend, that Brexit has undermined the Agreement: "Anything that pulls the communities apart in Northern Ireland undermines the Good Friday Agreement and anything that pulls Britain and Ireland apart undermines that relationship."

In all of this, unionism is hopelessly lost. The DUP's position in resisting as a "blood-red line" any regulatory trading differences between here and Britain is a nonsense.

To talk of a border in the Irish Sea is hysterical rhetoric that heightens rather than lessens the challenge for unionism in maintaining a calm and problem-free Union with Britain.

Brexit has disturbed the settlement that arose out of the Agreement and the objective of unionism should be to defuse this damaging impact of Brexit.

It is in their self-interest to be pragmatic about Brexit. Brexit has damaged our politics and will continue to seriously damage our politics. Therefore, it makes good sense for unionists to work hard and cleverly towards the softest of Brexits.

By their performance to date at Westminster, in wilfully and stupidly interfering in the internal civil war in the Tory party, between the pro and anti-European wings, they have done nothing but heighten the aggravation of Brexit.

Their public weakening of Theresa May's attempts at compromise jeopardises a soft Brexit. This is not a clever strategy by Arlene Forster.

The picture of lemmings collectively jumping to their certain death from a great height springs to mind.

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