Belfast Telegraph

The EU vote has paved way for some curious alliances, but challenges now lie ahead of us

Our leaders must show goodwill and creativity if political progress here is to weather Brexit, writes Claire Hanna

Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster were on opposite sides of the EU referendum
Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster were on opposite sides of the EU referendum
Claire Hanna

Some local commentators and politicians (myself included) spent the period just before the Assembly election on May 5, and the few weeks after the vote, when the Programme for Government was being negotiated, speculating that politics here was about to enter a stable phase of policy development, challenge and delivery.

Unusually, we were about to enter a three-year gap in the election cycle - the next scheduled public vote is for the councils in May 2019. This hiatus could have created the space for politicians to start to seriously tackle the major economic, social and legacy issues - flags, parades and the past - that have only partially been addressed, if at all, since 1998.

Even the creation of an Assembly Opposition was an indication that the institutions at Stormont were both stable and maturing.

However, the EU referendum vote of June 23, where the UK voted for Brexit - though the voters in Northern Ireland voted by 55.8% for Remain - and the carnival of reaction that could occur in the years to come, has injected complexities that may make politics here more challenging than it has been for years.

The absence of any roadmap scenario for Brexit, the rise of post-factual populism, both in the UK and the US (think Michael Gove's "we have had enough of experts" and the support for Donald Trump), as well as the internecine near destruction of the British Labour Party, has created a landscape of uncertainty and a feeling that almost anything could happen politically.

Neither Left nor Right, nationalists, republicans, or unionists, internationalists or isolationists truly have a handle on what the rolling effects of Brexit will be. Worse, unlike in Scotland where a solid majority voted for Remain, and Nicola Sturgeon and her ministers can speak with authority for her people, the same cannot be said for Northern Ireland where Arlene Foster voted Leave and Martin McGuinness voted Remain.

The challenge is to ensure that change becomes a positive and that we harness momentum to address the many issues that have been marked 'too hard' since the 1998 Agreement, and that we have a serious conversation about our common interests and how our public institutions and community relations should be shaped.

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For even the most moderate Irish nationalist the Brexit vote has altered the cautiously but increasingly accepted acknowledgement of the benefits of a pluralist, social democratic and tolerant UK which some commentators saw as a factor in the reducing share of vote for Sinn Fein and the SDLP.

Those of us who aspire to Irish unity, for many even more relevant this side of the Brexit vote, must be clear what a planned and agreed united Ireland would look like.

The Leave campaign showed what raw nationalism and populism look like and, in the same way as that was a reckless campaign urging a leap into the unknown, so too is calling for a border poll without detailed planning on the social, economic and political frameworks that Irish unity will require, for example an all-island health care system, free at the point of delivery.

Relationships within Northern Ireland need to work first, with meaningful progress on the reconciliation and identity issues that still plumb disagreement and insecurity. Comparing the Assembly and EU polls, only six weeks apart, there are some notable patterns. For example, 87,000 more people voted in the referendum, West Belfast was the only constituency where turnout fell for the EU vote, and North Down, where voting turnout has often been the lowest in Northern Ireland, was among the highest in the referendum and voted clearly for Remain. It would be naive to believe that people from a unionist background who are applying for an Irish passport have suddenly become converts to the idea of a united Ireland; they are being pragmatic, but it gives substance to the provision in the Good Friday Agreement that people here can be Irish, British or both. This is a welcome new dynamic, and I believe many of these people are persuadable of the benefits of Irish unity when a comprehensive case is made.

Those either for Leave or Remain in the Brexit debate ensured in some cases a crossing of the prevailing political divide here and the creation of novel, if temporary, alliances. If Article 50 is triggered there will be great challenges to the complex political arrangements here, which were so intensively negotiated for in 1998.

Fresh reserves of the imagination, generosity, co-operation and creativity that created the Good Friday arrangements will have to be drawn upon, in the context of London and Dublin governments with very many complex economic and international problems to address too.

For the SDLP, the ideals of the European Union have been fundamental from our foundation in 1970, when we knew, too, that nationalism alone wouldn't provide the answers and when we joined the European Social Democratic grouping. The SDLP will work with any interested forums and parties of goodwill and integrity to ensure the maximum level of Europe's stability, diversity and opportunity in this region's future.

  • Claire Hanna is SDLP MLA for South Belfast

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