Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Political drift must be reversed before all hope fades away

Theresa May
Theresa May

Editor's Viewpoint

As expected, MPs voted against leaving the EU without a withdrawal deal in place. That is now the will of the House of Commons, but as desperate Brexiteers, clinging to the hope that the UK will still exit on March 29 pointed out, it does not have the force of law. Therefore, unless the Prime Minister can persuade the EU to allow an extension to Article 50 - effectively delaying the UK leaving - we could still crash out in 15 days' time without a deal.

However, it would require the House to descend further into the madness and chaos which has marked the long, heated, ill-mannered and ill-thought-out debate on Brexit to go against what it has now voted for.

The crux is: what ideas can the UK come up with which would be persuasive enough to force the EU to allow an extension to Article 50?

An extension, no matter how short or long, would have no purpose unless MPs can reach some sort of consensus on the way ahead. What is their alternative to the Prime Minister's derided deal, which has been resoundingly rejected on two occasions? Does anyone have any ideas? Maybe things will be a little clearer after more debate and more motions today.

What we do know is that the very place and issue on which Brexit has floundered to date - the island of Ireland and the controversial backstop - has already suffered grievously from the debate's toxic tone.

Brexit, we are told, will hasten a united Ireland, further unsettling unionists already concerned that the backstop could weaken the Union. Or it will ensure that direct rule will be introduced to replace what looks more and more like the doomed experiment in power-sharing at Stormont.

Can anyone seriously disagree with two perceptive, but blunt, articles in this newspaper today? Edmund Curran argues that with each passing deadlocked day the optimism of the Good Friday Agreement, signed 21 years ago, looks more and more like a distant memory of different times. We live in a divided Northern Ireland of two separate societies: one unionist, one nationalist.

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And as London, Dublin and Brussels argue over Brexit they are merely driving a deeper wedge between those two societies, and the Good Friday Agreement is disintegrating before everyone's eyes.

Yet Brexit is not a threat to just one community, but to everyone throughout this island. Who has grasped this truism? Or who cares?

Jude Whyte, whose mother was killed by loyalists in 1984, has an even harsher analysis given at the end of an impassioned plea for the pain of the people bereaved by the Troubles to be recognised. He says eight long, dreary years on the Victims and Survivors Forum have taught him that we live in the most "hate-filled, hateful, poisonous society, totally a place apart from the real world". The best he can foresee is for us in Northern Ireland to live in parallel universes, barely tolerating each other.

There are many who do not see life here like that, but many others will agree with his vision, even if they might exclude themselves from any culpability.

Northern Ireland has been without a government for more than two years. This drift cannot continue, otherwise who knows where it could end? But how can a political class that cannot even find common cause in dealing with day-to-day issues such as health, education, the legacy of the past and infrastructure among others change tack and put their own political advantage to one side for the good of all? If Stormont comes back, it cannot be as before.

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