Belfast Telegraph

Brendan Duddy Jnr: Northern Ireland should stay in the backstop for the time being... but hold a referendum every five years to give it democratic legitimacy

We have as much right to economic self-determination as to individual, political and national self-determination, argues Brendan Duddy Jnr

A customs checkpoint on the road between Newry and Dundalk in 1981
A customs checkpoint on the road between Newry and Dundalk in 1981

The Good Friday Agreement gave all of us the right to self-determination when it came to our national identity: to choose to be British, or Irish, or both.

It also gave us self-determination when it came to the future of Northern Ireland. We can opt, in a referendum, to be part either of the United Kingdom or a united Ireland.

But what about our right to economic self-determination? The backstop is hated in much of the House of Commons, but it fits the needs of the people and the businesses of Northern Ireland and is in line with the clear wish of most people here to remain in the European Union.

For many of us in Northern Ireland, being European is just as much our identity as being Irish or British.

Indeed, one of the attractions of joining the European Economic Community in 1973, along with Ireland, was that it offered the prospect of bringing our conflict to a close.

And it helped in doing just that by making the border less significant.

At the very last minute of leaving the EU, at last, some people in the UK Government have begun to recognise that exiting the EU also risks turning back the clock here to our troubled past. The backstop is a complicated and yet simple device, which is currently the only economic solution that would enable trade and business to continue unaffected after the UK leaves the EU, irrespective of the type and detail of a trade deal to be agreed with the EU.

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Without a backstop the people of Northern Ireland and the rest of Ireland have no real idea of where a no-deal outcome would take us, or how it would affect us.

I feel as if I am living in the middle of a perfect storm, one which I am unable to influence.

I assume the majority of the rest of Northern Ireland feels the same.

I certainly do not want politicians on one side or the other jumping on British or Irish nationalist agendas when they are discussing my - and our - economic future. So, what do we do?

In the absence of giant political figures dominating the House of Commons, it is up to us as individuals to suggest a solution.

Here is mine.

We should keep the backstop for Northern Ireland in Theresa May's proposed withdrawal agreement. But there should be one change to introduce a democratic mandate for its continued application in Northern Ireland.

The people of Northern Ireland would stay in the backstop as a temporary arrangement to give us close links in an economic sense, aligned with the Irish Republic and the rest of the EU. At the same time, we would continue to have open and full access to the UK's internal market.

Under the agreed terms of this amended backstop there would be a referendum in five years to determine if we are happy to continue in this arrangement. This might be subject to a repeated referenda every five years. The referendum would not consider the political or constitutional status of Northern Ireland and would address only our economic relationship with the EU and the regulations of our trade. This would recognise our unique geographical situation within Europe.

The referendum would give us the choice of whether we continue to adopt EU regulations and standards, or whether we fully adopt any new UK rules. There should be no jumping on bandwagons about whether this affects our Britishness or Irishness.

The result would determine Northern Ireland's membership of an economic zone, not a political zone.

Personally, I want Northern Ireland to stay a member of an economic zone that could change the possibilities of life, infrastructure, jobs and economy in our region, which is what continued membership of the EU's single market and customs union offers us.

Indeed, with the continuing boom in Ireland's economy, I want Northern Ireland to benefit much more from our relationship with our southern neighbours.

For the present, we all seem to be stuck in a true Irish bog. It is a bog in which we are down in a deep valley, can see only yet more bog and the even more difficult areas to try and get across. We need fresh thinking to navigate us ahead and out of the mire.

I have first-hand experience of supporting my late father, which has involved 35 years of painstaking work from the 1970s onwards and which included various governments, leaders of nationalism and unionism.

What my father and the people he worked with achieved was immense: it ended the conflict. But those achievements must not be ignored and laid to waste.

We, the people of this part of Northern Ireland, are still here, still trying to pick up the pieces, still living in one of the worst economic blackspots of Europe, lacking investment, infrastructure and sufficient jobs.

During the many years of slow and careful progress that culminated in the signing of the Good Friday Agreement it became clear to everyone that Northern Ireland needed solutions that allowed people to identify in their individual way. Britain's exit from the UK does not change that necessity.

Surely we have as much right to economic self-determination as to individual, political and national self-determination?

Leaving the EU represents the most extreme act of self-harm that is imaginable - and one which we, in Northern Ireland, rejected by a clear majority.

What is even worse, it runs the risk of reversing those political gains that turned our back on the past and gave us the chance to be European, as well as British and Irish.

I want that choice to still be there. I believe many others do as well.

Brendan Duddy Jnr is a director of the Duddy Group, a hospitality company based in Derry. He is the son of the late Brendan Duddy, a recognised peacemaker during the Troubles.

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