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Tom Kelly

Many tough days after Brexit, but at least Northern Ireland has comfort of special status

Tom Kelly


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Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson

PA

Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage

PA

Boris Johnson

So today the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. It ends three wasted years of acrimony, grandstanding and small-mindedness.

As we are in the transition period, nothing much will change visually for the public except that British MEPs will no longer attend the European Parliament and the Boris Johnson Government will no longer sit at the top table of European decision making. By proxy, the Irish Government will be our voice in Europe.

Three years ago I was proud to chair the civic campaign for staying in the European Union. I believed then and now that we are stronger in Europe.

One of the most inspiring parts of the campaign in Northern Ireland was the enthusiasm of the many hundreds of young people who volunteered their time to work tirelessly to achieve a Remain vote.

The success of the campaign was their success. It was down to their efforts.

At the Titanic Conference Centre, waiting for the referendum results, I could see the anxiety etched on the faces of young volunteers.

For many this was their first taste of politics. To a political veteran like me politics is a brutal sport. It messes with both your head and heart. Winning is joyous but defeat is bitter.

The late Seamus Mallon, in his maiden speech as an MP, paid tribute to his predecessor Jim Nicholson, saying he could empathise with him losing. In the round of politics, Mallon felt that to savour victory, a politician must also learn to accept defeat with grace. Those young people knew of neither experience.

As the results piled in it was clear English nationalism had won the day. All credit to Nigel Farage - the one-man wrecking ball. He's the ultimate laughing cavalier who will bear no responsibility for any future calamity which may hit the British economy.

When the Northern Ireland vote was announced it met with muted acclaim. Yes, there was a clear majority for Remain, but it was a hollow victory as the overall result quashed any sense of joy.

Young people throughout the UK had been let down. Their rights as EU citizens had been diminished.

Walking back to the hotel, deflated and disappointed, I shed a tear for all the young people who worked on the campaign.

They had come from all backgrounds, all faiths, diverse in politics and identity but cemented together by hope. In such a divided society it was truly heartening to bear witness to such unity and shared aspirations.

As I tried to sleep, I was restless as it seemed as if our efforts in Northern Ireland had been for nothing, but that was not the case.

Those who stuck their heads in the sand about the realities of the local economy and the Good Friday Agreement were about to be hit by a political avalanche. Northern Ireland's civic society pushed back and found its voice.

The British Government, advised and abetted by the DUP, were wrong-footed in Parliament, in Dublin and in Brussels.

Northern Ireland and its result could not be ignored. I was elated.

When all is said and done, the landslide of the Tory victory cemented what we instinctively knew - that the will of an overwhelming majority of English voters was to leave the EU.

But let's not be deluded. This Government doesn't reflect the will of British voters as claimed. They now lead a fractured United Kingdom.

They have purged their own party and couldn't even mint their celebratory Brexit fifty pence coin without mucking it up.

So today is Brexit day. I won't be celebrating it: xenophobia and narrow nationalism have no place in my politics.

I have the comfort of knowing a special case has been made for Northern Ireland. Whilst short of my hopes, it goes some way to reflect our unique status.

My passport will remain Irish and European.

We will remain aligned to the single market for manufacturing and agri businesses. For all practical purposes we will stay in the customs union. EU peace funding will remain in place until 2027.

There will be no hard border. With the restoration of Stormont the North/South cross-border bodies will now increase in their significance, thereby developing the economy for the benefit of all.

The East/West bodies will reflect the special relationships between the two sovereign governments of Britain and Ireland and build upon the synergies between the devolved regions.

Critically for my unionist neighbours, the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom remains unchanged.

There will be some very difficult days ahead both politically and economically. This evening I will content myself with Albarino wine, some Roquefort and the juke box blasting Ode To Joy!

  • Tom Kelly is the former chair of Stronger in Europe
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