Alex Kane: Unionists and nationalists need to talk to each other about Brexit

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A Westminster-based journalist phoned me last Wednesday: “What is it about the backstop that rattles unionists, Alex. Surely it gives them the best of both worlds?”

What rattles them is the fear of Northern Ireland being left alone in a customs union with the EU. Moreover, as the Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, pointed out a few weeks ago, the backstop would apply unless and until an alternative way was found to keep the Irish border frictionless. In other words, that might mean it would ‘endure indefinitely’, even while still being described as a temporary arrangement. Which, in turn, means that Northern Ireland would not, in the eyes of unionists, be treated as an integral member of the United Kingdom.

As the only Pro-Remain Northern Ireland MP in the Commons it made sense to invite Lady Sylvia Hermon to Saturday's Brexit conference in Belfast

As the only Pro-Remain Northern Ireland MP in the Commons it made sense to invite Lady Sylvia Hermon to Saturday's Brexit conference in Belfast

There is, I know, an argument that on issues like same-sex-marriage and abortion law reform, Northern Ireland is already viewed as a ‘place apart’ within the United Kingdom. But those are issues which could be dealt with in a rebooted Assembly, particularly if, as I think is likely, the petition of concern will not be deployable on moral/conscience issues. And, if the Assembly isn’t coming back, then those issues can be and almost certainly will be resolved by the House of Commons.

But the backstop is different. It would create a situation in which Northern Ireland would not be in step with the rest of the UK in something as constitutionally significant as Brexit. Moreover, it would leave NI subject to EU regulations rather than the regulations which apply to the rest of the UK. It could almost be argued – and I’m pretty sure that Sinn Fein would make the argument – that in those circumstances NI would be treated by the EU as though it were already part of a united Ireland.

Those who say that the backstop should be accepted for now, because it is only a ‘temporary’ measure, have learned nothing from either the Good Friday or St Andrews agreements. The ‘constructive ambiguity’ in which both those agreements were wrapped (and it applied also to the Stormont House Agreement and Fresh Start) meant that holes weren’t filled in at the time and key issues were left unresolved. Most of the holes remain unfilled, while the key issues continue to be kicked further and further away. If it proves impossible to bring certainty to something as crucial as the backstop before a final deal, then why does anyone think it will be any easier afterwards? Experience suggests the situation would simply become worse and lead to even greater division and polarisation.

Given all of that it is not surprising that unionists – and not just party political unionism – have concerns about the future. Those who voted Leave didn’t vote for a backstop. They voted in the reasonable expectation that Northern Ireland would continue to be treated as though it were an equal partner within the UK. A bespoke arrangement for NI was always possible: but the backstop is not such an arrangement.

I accept that the future of the Union depends on a majority in NI continuing to vote for it. But if NI is treated very differently from the rest of the UK on something as huge as Brexit, then it surely makes it easier for the pro-Irish unity lobby to pursue their own agenda? Is it, I wonder, just coincidence that the SDLP and Fianna Fáil are now talking about a possible merger (which could put Fianna Fáil’s voice and influence at the very heart of government in NI, since I’m assuming the SDLP would rejoin the Executive)? Is it just a coincidence that civic nationalists (the same group behind letters to Leo Varadkar) are organising a conference – Beyond Brexit: The Future of Ireland – on Saturday?

Niall Murphy, one of the organisers, says: “The purpose of the conference is to specifically consider and debate what Brexit is imposing upon us and for us to have a mature opportunity to respond to that. That a border poll might feature in part of that response is entirely foreseeable and reasonable. We collectively voted to remain in the EU and political unionism has given a definitive expression to promote Brexit. We think that that is inconsistent with the majority view and we consider that the convention of this conference provides an opportunity to rebalance that inequity.”

So why not invite Lady Hermon? Why not invite any of a number of ‘political unionists’ who campaigned and voted Remain? Mr Murphy makes mention of a ‘few people of unionist heritage’ (what does that term even mean?) who will be on some panels: why them, rather than people like, for example, UUP MLAs Mike Nesbitt and Steve Aiken? It is not the fault of the DUP that the only other MP from NI taking their seat is the pro-Remain Lady Hermon. It is not the fault of the DUP that SF’s pro-Remain MPs don’t take their seats. It is not the fault of the DUP that they campaign for their own beliefs – that’s what parties do. It is not the fault of the DUP that, by default, they have become almost the only NI voices in Parliament at this crucial moment.

I can understand why the conference is being organised. Indeed, I’ve written on many occasions about the need to understand the shifting dynamics in Northern Ireland which followed the Brexit result. So it strikes me as a mistake for the conference organisers to convey the impression that the only people worried about the result, the consequences and the future, are nationalists. Many unionists – not just those of whatever ‘unionist heritage’ is supposed to be – have similar concerns. Not hearing those voices is a mistake.

One thing is clear though: nationalists and unionists are both very worried at the moment – albeit for different reasons. They need to talk to each other: not just to themselves. Nationalists need to understand unionist concerns. We need to understand theirs.