Alliance is not defined by the constitutional question: we seek softest possible Brexit and an integrated, liberal NI

Stephen Farry MLA, deputy leader of the Alliance Party
Stephen Farry MLA, deputy leader of the Alliance Party

There are massive economic and political reasons for continuing to fight Brexit or to seek the softest possible Brexit for Northern Ireland.

Owen Polley (Newsletter 25 May) and others seem to have an unhealthy obsession with Alliance’s position and even more worryingly continue to portray Brexit and its mitigation through a zero-sum unionist versus nationalist lens.

Politically, Northern Ireland is a divided society and a contested space. The Good Friday Agreement has performed a reasonable job in managing divisions but not yet overcoming them.

This region only works on the basis of sharing and interdependence. The Agreement provided a balanced way forward that entrenches the principle of consent and recognises internal, north-south and east-west dimensions. This complex set of relationships was enabled by the joint and synchronised membership of the European Union by the United Kingdom and Ireland.

It is clear that Brexit has placed the constitutional question back on the table in contrast to a situation where it had previously been largely parked. Brexit, and in particular a hard Brexit, is hugely destabilising to these fragile arrangements.

Alliance is not defined by the constitutional question. We have members with different perspectives, and indeed some may change their opinion in light of changing circumstances.

Our central purpose is to promote cohesion, integration and reconciliation within the region and to facilitate a more liberal society.

However, for any unionist, it would seem self-evident that the maintenance of the union is linked to making Northern Ireland work for everyone living here.

Whether it is a hard Brexit or the denial of a whole range of equality and human rights issues recognised elsewhere in the UK, unionist political leaders and other opinion formers are acting in a self-defeating manner.

Economically, Northern Ireland is integrated in terms of both supply chains and sales with both Great Britain and Ireland, and beyond. Any Brexit that brings new barriers or friction will bring economic consequences. Alliance believes that it would be better for the entire UK to join a fresh customs union with the EU and to remain within the Single Market.

Any fragmentation of the customs space is going to entail some form of border checks as there will be different economic regimes on either side.

It is a prerequisite that Northern Ireland by one means or another is in the same customs zone with the rest of the island if any new physical checks are to be avoided. We are open to Northern Ireland as a region remaining within the Single Market and this would only entail the management of regulatory differences with the rest of the UK.

Northern Ireland doing things differently economically is nothing new. We have differences on employment law, a single electricity market on the island, and food safety checks down the Irish Sea.

Recently, all five main parties sought a differential rate of corporation tax which would have seen divergence from the UK economic model. None of this brought the sky down and indeed some were advocated by unionists.

Opinion polls do show considerable support for a soft Brexit. It is a mistake to see support for a soft Brexit UK wide or special arrangements for Northern Ireland as polar opposites.

Rather they are part of a continuum. Moreover, there is growing common ground across some political parties which is further reflected by the views of many within the business community and across civil society.

Special arrangements for Northern Ireland can be entirely consistent with devolution and the Principle of Consent. Sovereignty need not be compromised.

Alliance is seeking a pragmatic way forward in the interests of the entire community.

• Stephen Farry MLA is the deputy leader of the Alliance Party