Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O'Doherty: Recrimination and repentance will not change things, but a bit of imagination just might work

Sinn Fein and the DUP should work together to lobby the EU to let us keep our MEPs, argues Malachi O'Doherty

We are not going to be wholly outside the EU. We are gong to be semi-detached. And this by virtue of the fact that many, perhaps most, of us will have EU passports as well as being bound by EU trade regulations. (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)
We are not going to be wholly outside the EU. We are gong to be semi-detached. And this by virtue of the fact that many, perhaps most, of us will have EU passports as well as being bound by EU trade regulations. (Kirsty O’Connor/PA)

By Malachi O'Doherty

So, there is to be a border down the Irish Sea. Northern Ireland is to become the doorstep of the European Union, neither in nor fully detached. And while some toyed with the idea that such a status would be "the best of both words", the danger is that we will simply be doubly disadvantaged. A doorstep is a chilly place to sit.

The immaturity and incompetence of our local politicians have bequeathed us this problem. Sinn Fein's abstentionism and the DUP's siding with the extreme Tory eurosceptics were big contributors to this.

And each party is under suspicion of not having declared its heartfelt desire. Sinn Fein may, indeed, prefer the hardest Brexit. That would be logical from their position, since it would increase the demand here for a return to the EU through unifying Ireland.

This would not be the Irish unity that De Valera, or the early Gerry Adams, envisaged. It is not the aspiration of a nationalist, but of an internationalist, but it would be a result.

And I have heard many express the view that the real desire of the DUP was to harden the Irish border, despite denials.

Surely, now, someone has her head in her hands, wishing she had never heard the word Brexit.

But recrimination and remorse won't change things. A bit of political imagination might.

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There is a theory doing the rounds that, in the end, there is nothing for unionists to worry about.

This says that Johnson is now strong enough to soften Brexit through a trade deal. He can now keep us all in the single market.

We'll leave in January, negotiate the trade deal during a transition period and then it will be as if nothing had changed.

But investing your hopes on the benign side of Boris might be as reckless as backing Trump. How many times was it said that after he took office he would settle down and behave?

The parties in Northern Ireland have to lay plans together for a future in which we are on the doorstep, in which our businesses suffer from complications to trade with Great Britain, or what's left of it.

Might they not demand an injection of funds from the EU and Britain to help restructure our economy here? Not just to smooth trade with Britain, but also to facilitate trade with the Irish Republic and the rest of the EU?

Much of the argument made by the EU in negotiations over Brexit concerned the unreasonable disadvantaging of EU citizens inside Northern Ireland. And that is all of us, or all of us who wish to identify as Irish/European.

We are not going to be wholly outside the EU. We are gong to be semi-detached. And this by virtue of the fact that many, perhaps most, of us will have EU passports as well as being bound by EU trade regulations.

And, if that is the case, are we not also entitled to representation at the European Parliament?

Shouldn't Sinn Fein and the DUP jointly call on the EU to allow us to continue electing MEPs and sending them to Brussels? Why not?

It might be a bit galling for the DUP to lend weight to such a demand, having been the champion of a hard Brexit until it sunk, in that this was an act of self-harm, but what alternative does it have?

Both Sinn Fein and the DUP are losing electoral ground. This is because many people have lost faith in their ability to work together, or to be constructive when they try.

Politics here went horribly awry after the Sinn Fein decision to boycott Stormont. The DUP dug in against an Irish Language Act, chiefly because it felt it could not afford to lose a fight with Sinn Fein and even saw its vote initially rise on the back of its obstinacy. Sinn Fein had the same experience.

Intransigence was good because the electorate rewarded it. But that was nearly three years ago.

Now, the electorate is fed up with the nonsense that prioritises an argument about language rights over the health service.

And Sinn Fein must wonder now if it misjudged things calamitously in not going back into the Executive when its vote was high in March 2017.

It might not be as high the next time and a party fixated on equality might have squandered the only equality that matters in politics, the equality of numbers.

We need the Assembly back and we need a special committee formed within the Assembly to devise responses to the Irish sea border. If we don't have party co-operation on this, but instead have unionist hysteria needled by nationalist smugness, then we will get no result but deepening sectarian tension and a growth in the fear that putting us on the doorstep is a means of dumping us into a united Ireland.

The plain reality is that we now face a crisis which England can not be trusted to deal with and which Europe can hardly be expected to interfere in, unless asked. The only asking can come from the Assembly. The voice of the Assembly would represent the two communities and the secular tendency, the growing middle ground.

It would have an authority to speak for us all and cannot be left to the shrill voices of our squabbling MEPs, who are about to lose their jobs anyway.

Might Sinn Fein calculate that it is more in their interest to let the doorstepping go ahead?

That would be daft when their vote is slipping and the main charge against them is that they are political mitchers living by some fantasy that deepening crisis works in their favour.

And the DUP has nowhere else to go.

Without Stormont, it has negligible influence for now in Westminster and a couple of councils in Northern Ireland.

But there is another problem. Faith in these parties is low.

There is a solution to that, however. It is to demonstrate the ability to work together on a major, indeed unprecedented, political challenge.

That is to intervene in the negotiations with the European Union with specifically Northern Irish demands, for a structural relationship that requires a massive investment to mitigate the damage we are about to face and for continued representation at Brussels.

Pull that off and we'd have another bonus; proof that nationalism, unionism and the middle ground actually can co-operate for the benefit of all.

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