We need to talk about its benefits as well as its shortcomings
Brexit is an endless conversation. You can’t escape the discourse. Even the mere mention of it leads to the rolling of the eyes, or a sigh. Everyone has an opinion on it.
Given everything that’s happened in the past five years, I can’t blame people for being angry. Angry because Brexit happened, or frustrated because it wasn’t what people expected. I’ve stopped being infuriated on a daily basis and transitioned to weary resignation. It’s done. It’s happened. We can only get on with it and deal with what’s in front of us.
For me, the most depressing conversations are about punishment and retribution. Remainers and Brexiteers blame each other for the Protocol. For many, Brexit is the original sin and everything that flows from it is the fault of those who supported it.
The words “own it” get thrown around a lot, especially on social media. It’s not enough that Northern Ireland has been upended by the events of the past few years. We must punish each other as well.
Another depressing reality: we have a team mentality here. The UK Government and the EU are seen to represent either side in the Brexit debate. People cheer blindly for one or the other. We assume good faith for our team and view the opposition with a cynical lens.
Lacking the guts to critique your own side is an infuriating quality in a politician. Yes, sometimes it’s not optimal to run your mouth off. But there are times when it simply looks like cowardice and political manoeuvring.
It’s important to talk about blame when it comes to Brexit. That conversation is often necessary. Sometimes it’s not.
I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have a good slabber (I excel at it). I enjoy it. I do think there are times when having a go at each other isn’t worth it.
Twitter is, of course, where the slabbering gets cranked up to full volume. Brexit brings it out like nothing else. A political spat is great entertainment, but a part of me still finds it exasperating. Technology has brought us many things. We could do without Northern Ireland’s politicians performatively dunking on one another for likes.
When it comes to Brexit, I think we need to understand each other better. We need to see the failings in our own side and the truths in the other.
One side isn’t morally superior to the other. People had legitimate reasons to vote Leave and Remain. We need to stop looking at the British Government and the EU with rose tinted glasses.
And so we come to the Protocol. Last week, the Government released its latest proposals for the sea border. “Proposals”, I suppose, is a poor choice of word. The command paper is the latest instalment in a long-running saga, where Boris Johnson reads the Withdrawal Agreement and feigns shock over what he signed.
The Government wants to amend the Protocol and remove some of its clauses, including oversight by the European Court of Justice. Significantly, the Government isn’t proposing to ditch the sea border.
The Protocol is where, I think, we all need to take the blinkers off. It’s nobody’s first choice, but we are where we are. Putting the blame game aside for a moment could help everyone.
We need to talk about the benefits of the Protocol as well as the obstacles. We also need to make sure we’re not offering Northern Ireland up on a platter.
A recent report published by the Institute of Irish Studies, written by Professor Pete Shirlow, Professor Brendan Murtagh, Alison Grundle, Michael D’Aarcy and Jarlath Kearney, examines the Protocol in detail. It’s quite clear that, not withstanding the problems and issues, it provides Northern Ireland with a unique opportunity.
With the Protocol, Northern Ireland now has access to two markets. Businesses have an advantage over firms in Britain when it comes to trade within the EU. Already, Invest NI and Manufacturing NI are reporting that the Protocol is giving them a competitive edge. No other country in Europe has what Northern Ireland has. When are we going to acknowledge this?
But, as the report stresses, the Protocol must work for people who haven’t yet seen the “peace dividend”.
I can’t help but be wary when I read about wealth managers and multi-million-pound companies selling the benefits of Northern Ireland’s new status.
For years, disaster capitalists have circled Northern Ireland, waiting for an opportunity to profit from the aftermath of the conflict. When these very rich men talk about the Protocol, you can’t help but ask: who is going to benefit here?
The Brexit vote was complex. It’s significant that people who haven’t benefitted from globalisation voted Leave. Some Remainers in Northern Ireland fail to understand that the European Union has not brought prosperity to everyone. Some have been deliberately left behind.
As noted by the Institute of Irish Studies, “without economic delivery, a society free of conflict cannot be achieved. Only a widely prosperous society can hope to be a settled society”.
We need to get out of our online silos and talk to one another. The Protocol could be hugely beneficial to Northern Ireland if we make it work.
At some point, we need to change the story. We need to be realistic. Pragmatism, empathy and compassion are the order of the day.
If we miss this moment, if we make more mistakes, we will regret it in the years to come.
Sarah Creighton is a lawyer, writer and political commentator