Belfast Telegraph

Politicians must stop finger-pointing, accept the electorate's decision and heal divisions

Editor's Viewpoint

There are many occasions when people wrongly describe certain events as "historic" and "memorable", but the outcome of the referendum can be legitimately viewed in those terms. The decision by the people of the UK to leave the European Union after more than 40 years' membership is one of the most significant developments in the long history of the entire country. Only time will tell how this will work out.

It is important to state that whatever your view of the outcome, the public has cast its vote, and we must respect the democratic mandate.

The details are complex, but what does the outcome tell us? It is abundantly clear that the UK is totally divided, both in its views of the EU and also geographically back home.

London was the only major English region to vote for Remain, as did Scotland and Northern Ireland, with large majorities. However, vast swathes of English voters from the shires and the large cities, towns and hamlets decided emphatically on getting out.

There was also a class element to this. In places like London, the professional classes had a large impetus to stay in Europe, but in other areas a large number of non-professional people, including those worried about jobs and immigration, were most keen to leave.

The referendum showed clearly, among other things, that there is a deep cultural and aspirational divide in the UK, and a serious disconnect with the London-based political class.

This week, the Belfast Telegraph made it clear that Northern Ireland's best interests, both economically and socially, would be best served by staying in the EU. This view was clearly endorsed by the Northern Ireland electorate.

One of our key arguments for staying in was because a vote for Brexit would pose a risk to the peace process, and because of our fears that it would threaten the stability and growth that we have enjoyed in a post-conflict Northern Ireland.

Predictably, within hours of the Brexit vote, Sinn Fein made the first call for an Irish border referendum.

The First Minister, Arlene Foster, does not believe the Union is at risk, but many will disagree with her. In retrospect the DUP's Brexit strategy was a high-risk one, and almost six in 10 voters in Northern Ireland disagreed with the party. Crucially, Mrs Foster is now at loggerheads with her Sinn Fein partners in the Executive.

There was a strong nationalist and republican support for the Remain camp, and they felt comfortable in a Northern Ireland within the EU. However in the unlikely event of a border poll, the desire of those same voters to be in the EU, above all else, would be pivotal.

Northern Ireland is never near the top of the Treasury wishlist, and we need to find a way of making our voice louder in the corridors of power.

Economically we are vulnerable, and our business leaders need to pull together to promote Northern Ireland plc even more, despite their recent differences over Brexit. Only by doing this can we punch above our weight in winning more support from London and attracting more investment, which is never easy.

Unfortunately, the Brexit vote, in one fell swoop, has made achieving this substantially more difficult.

These are bewildering and truly sensational times, as we live through history in the making. We have seen a Prime Minister resign without any indication whatsoever of who might succeed him. All of this creates a foetid atmosphere, with emotions running high.

We need to keep clear and calm minds as we move through uncharted waters. There is no point in demonising people because of the way they voted in the referendum. Many had understandable reservations about the EU, which is by no means perfect.

The high turnout included those detached from politics and many from the working-class, who are too easily stereotyped as jingoistic and unthinking.

Instead of finger-pointing and accusations from the political class, there is a need to understand why people feel so strongly, and a need for inclusiveness to try and bring the country together again.

There is a strong feeling in many quarters that Northern Ireland is now experiencing new difficulties that we do not need when facing into our so-called fresh start, which has its own problems to solve.

Without doubt, there are immense challenges ahead. For all our politicians, and particularly Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness, this will be a stiff test as to how they can work together constructively and subjugate personal and party affiliations for the greater good of all the people of Northern Ireland.

We wish them well.

Belfast Telegraph

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