Belfast Telegraph

Ed Curran: Brexit has left unionists and nationalists more divided than ever


An anti-Brexit campaigner at Westminster
An anti-Brexit campaigner at Westminster
John Redmond
Leo Varadkar
Arlene Foster
Theresa May
An anti-Brexit campaigner at Westminster
Mary Lou McDonald

By Ed Curran

With each passing deadlocked day, Good Friday 1998 looks more and more a distant memory of different times. Then, even Sinn Fein seemed to concur with John Hume's view that a united Ireland was not possible without a united Northern Ireland.

Today we are two separate societies: one living in unionist Northern Ireland, the other in what an increasing number of nationalists call "the north of Ireland".

How people define this place is yet another example of how the deadlock over Brexit has soured and virtually destroyed the aspiration of power-sharing that was at the heart of the Belfast Agreement 21 years ago.

No one in Brussels, London or Dublin appears capable of seeing or at least acknowledging that by adhering to their current positions, they are not protecting the Good Friday deal. Instead, they are actually driving a deep wedge between unionism and nationalism.

Ensuring an open border between north and south is supported by everyone. A new border between this island and Great Britain runs counter to the ethos of Good Friday.

Even moderate unionists who supported the Agreement say it breaches the principle of consent agreed by London and Dublin. If the backstop is the only way to ensure an open border on this island, regrettably it is building another damaging mental frontier between unionists and nationalists.

The Brexit referendum and the three years of failure to find a compromise over the backstop have proved a disaster for devolved government in Northern Ireland.

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No matter how impressive the portals of Stormont look to outsiders on the tourist buses, it is a hollow shell, increasingly devoid of hope that power-sharing will ever inhabit its vacant, echoing corridors again.

Theresa May can come to Belfast as many times as she likes and tell us she is upholding the Belfast Agreement. Leo Varadkar can come, too, and assert the same message. Michel Barnier and the leaders of Europe can concur.

But they are all deluding themselves. Their collective failure to find a solution to the Brexit backstop has unsettled too many unionists who fear the Union is under threat.

The determination of the UK to leave the EU has driven nationalists to believe that they must look more to Dublin than ever before for their political future.

A Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom and outside the European Union and a north of Ireland where the Republic is a member of the EU are simply two different places, looking in opposite directions at the same time.

The casualty of this constitutional mess is where we live and have our being, unionist and nationalist alike.

The message that is not being grasped in Brussels, London and Dublin is that much as all of them pledge to uphold the Good Friday Agreement, it is actually disintegrating at Stormont before their very eyes.

Even before the Brexit referendum relations were going downhill, and events since have driven stake after stake into Stormont's heart.

The last high point anyone can remember was a rare show of empathy between the then-new DUP leader Arlene Foster and the late Martin McGuinness when they agreed a programme for joined-up government and put their signatures to a letter in 2016 exhorting Mrs May to take account of the unique position of Northern Ireland.

After that the scandal of RHI broke over Mrs Foster's head. Mr McGuinness lost his health and his life. His final legacy ensured that whatever trust existed between the DUP and Sinn Fein was ground to dust in a matter of weeks.

This St Patrick's Day some if not all of our political leaders will again decamp to the White House in Washington, a far cry from the times when all could shake the President's hand with some pride in their power-sharing achievements back home and a sense of optimism for the future. This year, whether it be the Taoiseach or the DUP leader, there is little to be proud about in representing people on an island who are poles apart politically, and all the more so because of Brexit.

If as much effort had been put into protecting power-sharing at Stormont in recent years as has been directed at the backstop in Brussels, Northern Ireland might not be in its current perilous political state.

The failure of London and Brussels to resolve how the UK exits the EU has the potential to imperil the livelihoods of people all over this island, from dairy farmers in Co Cork to aircraft workers in east Belfast.

The dangers do not discriminate between unionists and nationalists.

We are all in this together, yet the future is being determined over our heads and by people who have no idea where Monaghan or Cavan end and Fermanagh and Tyrone begin.

Sadly, the political leadership on the ground here instils little or no confidence.

Secretary of State Karen Bradley, in the eyes of many, seems not to know what day it is. Mrs Foster, has the shadow of RHI hanging over her in the coming months when the inquiry report is published.

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald did her naive best to destroy the selection process for the next PSNI Chief Constable.

As for the two parties who defined power-sharing two decades ago, they have become also-rans. It is hard to see any revival of fortunes for either. The Ulster Unionists languish in the shadow of the DUP. The SDLP looks away from Stormont and risks more division within its ranks by engaging with Dublin parties.

The deadlock over Brexit is hardening the differences between the two communities here. One side sees a battle to save the Union while the other, as seen in the SDLP's link-up with Fianna Fail, sees the future in united Ireland politics.

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein rails against all things British.

The DUP, parading around Westminster with power and influence, and Sinn Fein, demanding a divisive Irish unity poll, live on different planets, where once they somehow shared the same offices.

Life goes on in separate ways. For example, in the past month school children waved Union flags in Ballymena for a visit from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, while other children offered just as warm a welcome for Irish President Michael D Higgins when he opened their new school in Dungannon.

That's how it is - a totally divided and deadlocked political system with unionists and nationalists living out their British and Irish social and cultural lives in their own very different manner. The pity is that no one outside gave much if any thought to the negative impact of the Brexit referendum on devolution at Stormont or the north-south border.

The DUP, according to one of its former Stormont ministers, Jim Wells, barely discussed Brexit and rode instead on a wave of anti-European sentiment which has always pervaded the party.

Now the DUP is centre-stage in the whole European debate.

By a quirk of electoral fate, nothing can be done without the party's approval. Its deputy leader Nigel Dodds is designated the most powerful politician in the UK and, notwithstanding her part in the RHI debacle, Mrs Foster received an award as female politician of the year.

Like the Irish nationalists in 1910 who held the balance of power and kept Herbert Asquith in power, so the DUP does the same in 2019 for Mrs May.

Each extorted a price.

In the case of John Redmond, the Irish leader 109 years ago, he demanded Home Rule for Ireland.

In the DUP's case it is the preservation of the Union.

Two very distinct aspirations, over a century apart, but which still lie at the heart of our divisions today. Home Rule split this island apart. As things stand, the deadlock over Brexit looks as if it is doing the same for Northern Ireland.

But who beyond these shores sees that? Or cares?

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