Danger: disaster ahead

Brexit events are moving at such speed, it’s got dangerous to comment on them, because by the time your words appear in print, the latest twist in the Brexit saga may have left them out-of-date.

Besides which, the whole Brexit matter is riddled with contradictions. Take, for example, the DUP (yes I know, Virginia, but take them anyway).

As representatives of hard-headed business people, the DUP know the importance of an invisible border, and how trade of all kinds, notably agri-foods, has flourished during the past twenty years of peace. Now that Brexit has been announced, – even before it has happened – the fall in the value of sterling has left many people involved in cross-border trade acutely worried. Sinn Féin’s agriculture spokesperson, Declan McAleer, sums it all up:

“ The agri-food business, which has an island-wide trade of £1.3 billion per year, is highly integrated across the island. There are 142 area of north/south cooperation, underpinned by the ‘All-island Animal Health and Welfare Strategy.’ To unravel this would be a complete disaster for the industry and undermine the tremendous progress that has been achieved in making Ireland a world leader for high quality, traceable and tasty food.”

So surely farming associations have been making their voices heard? Um, not in all cases. The Ulster Farmers’ Union, which represents many DUP-voting farmers, is keeping its head down. It doesn’t want to say anything that might sound critical of the Brexit-loving Democratic Unionist Party, while at the same time its members are praying to God that those working for special status for Northern Ireland will win through.

Because for border communities on either side, a hard border will inflict untold damage. I’ve spoken to one farmer who doesn’t know how many times a day he crosses the border – eight, maybe ten? – in the course of his work. How can he possibly continue to make a living in this way if Brexit brings a hard border, I ask him. He says he literally doesn’t know how he’ll survive.

And then there’s the question of human rights. There are two Human Rights bodies in Ireland, born of the Good Friday Agreement: the Human Rights Commission in the North and the Equality and Human Rights Commission in the south. They work closely together, aiming to maintain an equivalence of human rights throughout the country, as well as equal human rights here in the north.

But come Brexit, some in the north will see themselves as British citizens and thus place themselves outside the EU; others will identify as Irish citizens and therefore are also European citizens, with the rights that citizenship brings. Thus, the latter should continue being able to travel, reside or work throughout the EU. British citizens in the north will not have this entitlement after March, which clearly means a major difference between citizens in the north. Which is contrary to the Good Friday Agreement.

And then there’s the fact that the GFA promises Irish/EU citizens the right to full participation in the political life of the EU. How will Irish/EU citizens in the north do this, if they don’t have MEPs to represent them?

Donegal County Council passed a motion in recent weeks calling on the Dublin government to allocate the two extra seats Ireland will have after Brexit to the north. Donegal, as a border county, clearly has skin in the game. The test will be whether other county councils throughout Ireland will support Donegal’s stand and urge that the extra two seats allocated to the south (there will be spare seats, since there’ll be no more British MEPs) should be passed on to the north, making it possible for Irish/EU citizens in the north to have elected representatives in Brussels. But will it happen?

The biggest contradiction at the heart of Brexit is that there’s a growing demand for the British people to think again. We in the north have made our views spotlessly clear, with a majority favouring remaining in the EU. Scotland has done the same even more emphatically. A key factor for England must be, will the British Labour Party throws its weight behind a second Brexit referendum?

They really, really should. It’ll be an embarrassing climb-down but it’ll also be honest: the British people, seeing what they’ve voted for, are fearful and unhappy. Why would it be a betrayal of the people of the UK, to ask them to vote again? Parliaments give voters a chance to change their minds every five years or less. And they do. So a second referendum would simply allow the people of the UK two years later to say if new information has changed their minds.

If there were a second vote and it still had a majority favouring Brexit, I really would fear for the sanity of the British population.

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