Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Foster-McGuinness joint letter from 2016 could provide basis for Brexit compromise between DUP and Sinn Fein

Editor's Viewpoint

The toxic effect of Brexit on political relationships in Northern Ireland, and between unionists and politicians in the Republic, can be most starkly seen in comparing a joint letter sent by former First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to the Prime Minister just two years ago and the row over a letter signed by Mrs May this week.

In August 2016 the two heads of the devolved government at Stormont outlined the challenges they saw flowing from Brexit - it must not compromise cross-border efforts to tackle organised crime and those opposed to the peace process; businesses must remain competitive and be able to recruit EU workers; EU subsidies to the vital agri-food sector and funding for projects in the province must not be jeopardised.

Now all issues are seen through the singular prism of the Union. The DUP is concerned that the PM's acceptance of a backstop agreement will mean a potential border down the Irish Sea and/or Northern Ireland being forced to continue to accept EU regulations. Such moves, the party claims, would weaken the constitutional position of the province.

Some might argue that this is paranoia, but unionists will point to previous occasions when they were promised one thing and the opposite was imposed on them. They remember 1973 when Stormont was prorogued and later a short-lived power-sharing Executive formed, and 1985 when Margaret Thatcher signed the Anglo Irish Agreement in spite of unionist protests. That paved the way for the Good Friday Agreement.

Unlike her predecessors, Foster is in a virtually unchallenged electoral position and now is the time for cool heads as well as putting pressure on the Prime Minister to adhere to previously stated intentions on Brexit.

Returning to that letter signed by Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness, it showed a determination by both the DUP and Sinn Fein to tackle real cross-community concerns about Brexit.

The choice facing us should not be a binary one of accepting Brexit or rejecting it without trying to reach a compromise which gets the best possible deal for Northern Ireland and securing its economic future.

Could Sinn Fein and the DUP not use that letter as a foundation for compromise? From a unionist perspective that would be the surest way of preserving the Union. Simply threatening the British Government may bring unwelcome results.

Belfast Telegraph

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