I don’t see what Foster and Nesbitt have to fear from an all-Ireland Brexit forum

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

Speaking in the Dail last week, Enda Kenny announced his plans to host an “all-Ireland conversation ... as to what is going to happen in terms of agribusiness North-South, meat, beef, pork producers, industry, financial services, education and health: our intention is to protect this country’s vital interests in these vital Brexit talks”.

The ‘conversation’ will take the form of a forum, due to meet in November, to which business people, members of civic society and political parties –from north and south – have been invited.

Predictably – actually their response has become almost Pavlovian on these occasions – the DUP and UUP have said that they won’t be attending.

That’s a pity. Northern Ireland and the Republic are, thanks to the Good Friday Agreement, inextricably linked. They cannot live in isolation.

The departure of the United Kingdom from the EU will change the political, social, economic and constitutional nature of their relationship and, if it isn’t handled with caution, common sense and goodwill, could raise some enormously difficult problems for both countries.

This is uncharted territory we’re in and nothing can be taken for granted. All new arrangements will have to be sanctioned by the Dail, Westminster, the Assembly and Brussels and, once Article 50 is triggered, no one can be sure what the final settlement will look like.

The Assembly and the Dail need to be talking. Business, tourism, manufacturing, trading, social, community, et al groups and interests on both sides of the border need to be talking to each other. Opinion needs to be gauged and engaged. Areas of common concern need to be addressed.

Reassurances will be required. Consequences will need to be examined. And none of this can be done without the input of unionism: particularly when the DUP and UUP were on different sides during the referendum.

I don’t see what Arlene Foster and Mike Nesbitt have to fear from such a forum. Even if it’s only to get a sense of what is going on, or maybe just to set out their present reservations (and, who knows, maybe those reservations could be allayed), it makes sense for them to be there.

Given what has happened in the past do they really want their interests represented by Theresa May or James Brokenshire?

Do they really want to be begging to be allowed to join the ‘conversation’ at a later stage?

Do they really want to be faced with some sort of deal cobbled together by London, Dublin and Brussels?

Mike Nesbitt should be wise enough to know that there is more chance of the UUP voice being heard in Kenny’s proposed forum than in a UK/RoI/EU talks process involving just the heads of government.

Also, who will represent the pro-EU unionist voice if the UUP chooses to isolate and emasculate itself behind Arlene’s skirts?

To be fair, I can understand Nesbitt’s reluctance. While it’s true that he was on the winning side in terms of NI’s decision to remain in the EU, the electoral evidence from May’s Assembly election (the worst ever result for the UUP) suggests that his pro-EU stance cost the party votes and seats. But the fact remains that a majority in NI voted to Remain and he is the leader of the only unionist party to support Remain.

Surely it makes sense for him to ensure that his voice is heard in an all-Ireland forum on the consequences of Brexit? His unionism isn’t going to be diluted in such a forum. He won’t be supporting a plan to undermine the result and trigger a second referendum (Kenny has already said that he recognises and respects the UK’s vote to Leave).

More important, in the week in which it was revealed that the DUP leadership were aware of the contents of a ‘secret’ briefing paper which warned of the consequences of Brexit before the vote on June 23, surely it makes sense for Nesbitt to be listening to those – like him – who warned about the negative consequences all the way through the campaign?

Regular readers will know that I voted Leave: and I have no buyer’s remorse.

I would vote the same way if we had another referendum (which, I suspect, is more likely than not). But I’m also aware that the result came as a huge shock to the political establishment of the UK and RoI – as well as to millions of ordinary voters who took a Remain victory for granted – and that we need to ensure the best deal for our exit is concluded.

I understand why Kenny supports an all-Ireland conversation and, even as a Leaver, I have no problem with such a conversation. I welcome it. I’d have been surprised if there hadn’t been a demand for one.

So I can’t understand why Foster and Nesbitt want to sit it out. It strikes me as a profoundly shortsighted and fundamentally stupid response. Millions of people across NI and the Republic, along with millions more across GB, will feel the impact and live with the impact of Brexit.

We need to talk to each other and reassure each other.

In the coming months and years Foster may be glad of ‘friends’ in the South.

So please, let this not be another time when mainstream unionism in NI sees nothing but the smaller picture.