Belfast Telegraph

Ed Curran: Our futures hang worryingly on the decisions of people who know so little about us

History shows that past Tory Governments have pulled wool over unionist eyes, says Ed Curran

It was never going to be simple. Now we know how complex and time-consuming the Brexit battle has become. Now we know how potentially dangerous Brexit is proving for community relations on this island, for trade, indeed, for the very constitutional future of Northern Ireland.

Had we all known on June 23, 2016, referendum day, what we know now, it's quite likely many people might have opted to vote differently, or not at all, or, perhaps, the electoral turnout might have been much higher.

Too late now. The milk is spilt and we can cry over it as much as we want as we watch the failure of the UK and the EC leaders to come to terms yet again with the minefield of Anglo-Irish politics and to find a solution to the border issue.

The referendum result declared 28 months ago has left British politics in a mess, a Government teetering on the brink of collapse and exit from the European community now on an even longer finger than before.

At the heart of the Brexit battle lies the DUP, without whose support the Conservative Government of the UK will fall.

There are two contrasting judgments on the DUP's Brexit performance to date.

History may show that the party saved the Union by thwarting all efforts to detach Northern Ireland from Great Britain with a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea.

Or, conversely, history might show that the DUP placed that Union in jeopardy by slavishly supporting Brexit in the first place in the face of majority opinion in Northern Ireland which wished Europe and the UK to stay together as before.

Which of these points of view you might agree with is likely to depend on whether you wish to leave the European community, or to remain.

For the moment, the DUP can paint itself as protector and potential saviour of the Union. But not until the ink is dried on any final deal can anyone know for certain if this will be the case.

If the issue of the Irish border couldn't be resolved after two years of trying, the question must be whether buying more time will make any difference.

The obvious danger for the DUP is the risk that, as more time passes, a frustrated British public and political opinion will sicken of the border issue and see it as hindering progress on so much else of Brexit business.

Granted, Theresa May speaks passionately on the constitutional ties binding the UK, but can the same be said of others around her, one of whom could well be her successor in Downing Street?

And what of Jeremy Corbyn, if he were to lead the next British Government? How unsympathetic is he likely to be towards those Northern Ireland unionists who have raged against him over the years about his republican links and fought tooth and nail at Westminster to preserve the Tories' wafer-thin majority and keep his Labour Party at bay?

Were it not for the DUP's current control over the Government's destiny, would Nigel Dodds and Sammy Wilson and the party's other eight MPs command anything like the same attention and interest in the tea-rooms of Westminster that they enjoy now? And what if they didn't?

What, then, for the future of Northern Ireland, the border issue, links with Europe and the world? What price then the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a border between north and south, or a border down the Irish Sea?

The worst-case scenario for the DUP and unionism in general must be any sign that public and political opinion in Britain is turning off the border problem. The longer it appears unresolvable, the more likely the current mood across the water will change to one of mounting frustration that, if it were not for Ireland, north and south, a deal could be agreed.

Already, backbench Conservatives are annoyed by threats against the Government by the DUP. More than 16 million people who voted to remain in the EU are not enthused with the DUP's tough Brexit stance.

Others argue that, while the DUP insists on being treated as an equal and integral part of the UK, it does not uphold the rest of the nation's standards on fundamental moral issues, such as abortion and gay rights, nor does it represent majority opinion in Northern Ireland on the Brexit issue.

These are testing times for the link with Britain and require all the diplomatic skills of locally elected politicians to ensure people in England, in particular, do not turn sourly towards us and ask, as some are already doing, if the price of a borderless Irish border is really worth sacrificing a swift and clean break from the EU.

Avoiding a hard border is not rocket science. It requires tariff-less trade and minimal regulatory oversight of goods and services. Until we know whether the UK can achieve a free trade deal with Brussels, the border issue cannot be properly resolved and that looks a long way off after this week's deadlock.

The Irish joined the Common Market in 1973 at the same time as the UK. Trade between the two countries was then - and remains to this day - joined at the hip. Yes, southern trade with Europe is on a much wider footing today, but the stretch of water between Britain and the Republic still accounts for £50bn annually.

That is surely reason enough for Leo Varadkar to stay as close to Theresa May as he has done to Michael Barnier and Donald Tusk. He may believe his bread is buttered in Brussels, but the reality is, whether nationalists north or south care to recognise it, their bread is also buttered in Britain.

A case can be made for special EU status - not just for Northern Ireland, but for the whole of this island. Nationalist Ireland, north and south, may bury its head in anti-British sentiment, but it cannot escape, any more than unionists can do, the economic realities of today and the need for the Brexit negotiations to reach a deal which will not unduly damage any part of this island.

The DUP, in its haste to fly Northern Ireland out of Europe as swiftly as possible, now finds the Brexit Airbus crash-landed on shifting political sands.

The divided politics of Northern Ireland, largely forgotten about by the outside world since the Good Friday Agreement, are back on the international stage.

The border is examined and walked over by politicians from Brussels, London and Dublin, it's undulating greenery and winding byways the focus of global media attention.

Meanwhile, people here watch and wait and wonder where it will all end. The sense of uncertainty is palpable everywhere.

So much of our futures now hang worryingly on the decisions of people who know so little about us, in the far-flung member states of the EU. So much rests with Westminster and Brussels.

What we do know is that, of the 17 million who supported Brexit in that referendum, the future of Northern Ireland was not on the agenda as it is now. The people of Britain who voted for and against went to the polling booths without a thought for our constitutional future, the Belfast Agreement, or the Irish border.

At the time, they seemed more interested in Boris Johnson's battle bus, with its erroneous promise of £350m a week for the NHS in the event of Brexit, than any danger that their vote might lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom.

The most recent opinion poll, conducted by LucidTalk, reflects a deep distrust among voters in Northern Ireland for the Conservative Government - despite Theresa May's solemn assurances on Northern Ireland's place in the UK.

One in three DUP voters say they do not trust Mrs May to keep her promise of no border down the Irish Sea.

And 60% of voters in general express distrust, 26% have doubts and only 12% think Mrs May will stick to her word.

Such concern is founded on past experience - most recently, the manner in which Margaret Thatcher signed the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement over the heads of unionists.

Nor is it forgotten that another Tory leader, Edward Heath, in 1972, suspended Stormont and effectively ended 70 years of unionist majority rule.

Now, the question that lingers in the body politic of unionism is: could it happen again?

What price the level of political expediency required to find a deal with Brussels? At what price for Northern Ireland?

Even the DUP is now confessing deepening concern. Arlene Foster warns Theresa May that she must not do a Margaret Thatcher on Northern Ireland. Nigel Dodds says: "We need to get real. The UK cannot be broken up. This is clearly a battle for the Union itself."

Had any such fears been recognised, or admitted, on the eve of the referendum in June 2016, might not some who voted for Brexit have had second thoughts about doing so?

It's too late now, but undoubtedly worry abounds among many here about the eventual terms of any deal.

Belfast Telegraph

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