How pro-Europeans may vote in Northern Ireland

by Bruce Clark | 07.06.2017

Northern Ireland’s jaded voters slouch to the polls tomorrow for a ballot that will make little immediate difference to a deep political impasse. To rouse them from their torpor, many candidates are beating an old tribal drum. They have urged voters to forget technicalities and refocus instead on the ancient dilemma: to which country, Britain or Ireland, should they ultimately belong?

If that rhetoric works, there could be a rise in the scores both of Sinn Fein, which holds four of Northern Ireland’s 18 seats, and of the Democratic Unionists, who command eight; parties nearer the centre will lose out. But not all voters warm to tribalism. Some will want politicians who can wade deep into the weeds of detail, and hence mitigate the effects of Brexit which could be manageable or dire.

For such voters, in most seats, the obvious choice are the moderate Irish nationalists of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, who are defending three seats. They have injected a refreshing new note into a stale argument about the consequences of Brexit for Northern Ireland’s peace, which is based on the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, a grand bargain between Irish nationalism and pro-British Unionism.

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Sinn Fein says Brexit’s effects will be devastating. By hardening the inter-Irish border, Brexit will render the partition of Ireland intolerable, even in the short term. The DUP insists that the consequences are negligible: even if British and Irish membership of the EU helped to usher in the 1998 accord, the deal can survive without that underpinning.

The SDLP retorts that the whole Good Friday process – both the elaborate agreement itself and the precedents set during its implementation – can now become an instrument to protect Ireland from Brexit’s destructive effects. But for that to happen, densely-packed legal arguments must be made.

At the core of this case is the exceptional character of Northern Ireland and the island’s border areas which witnessed a horrifying 25-year conflict; and the exceptional nature of the remedies used to douse the flames of war. That must be stressed because, as the Brexit negotiations start, both British and EU mandarins will fear exceptionalism. The starting point of London’s bureaucrats will be the coherence of the United Kingdom, and the Euro-negotiators will be mindful of precedents.

But the exceptionalist case has force. With its interlocking layers, including a ministerial council that groups politicians from across Ireland, and “east-west” deliberations between Ireland and Great Britain, the Good Friday deal established a relationship quite unlike that between any other EU neighbours. EU programmes fostering trade and cooperation across the inter-Irish border were also a response to egregious needs. That response won’t be helped by Brexit but it may survive Brexit if the case is argued properly. And veteran Westminster parliamentarians like the SDLP’s Mark Durkan are offering to make it; Sinn Fein MPs, by contrast, will refuse to take their seats in London, by long-standing principle.

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    Of course, for the Good Friday institutions to work, there has to be a government in Northern Ireland, grouping unionists and nationalists. Efforts to restart power-sharing, which collapsed six months ago, will resume immediately after the election. Both the DUP and Sinn Fein say they want power-sharing restored, but their entrenched positions over Brexit, along with a raft of other issues, don’t help.

    Both the SDLP and Sinn Fein want Northern Ireland to have a “special status” which retains some EU benefits; Unionists of all hues oppose this, sensing a bid to detach their territory from Great Britain. But the SDLP’s technocratic approach would aim to get as many benefits as possible even without any formally separate status.

    That will convince some Europhile voters. But in certain constituencies, tactical factors will come into play. The middle-of-the-road Alliance Party can also make a good claim to put European pragmatism ahead of tribal drum-beating. It is neutral on Northern Ireland’s ultimate status. So in East Belfast, European-minded citizens may support the Alliance’s Naomi Long in her bid to recover, from the DUP, the seat she lost in 2015.

    In South Antrim, the sitting MP is a moderate official Unionist – Danny Kinahan, who voted Remain in the referendum – being chased by a DUP rival: cool-headed sophistication is facing old-fashioned nativism.

    Tomorrow’s result will depend in part on how clearly people can recall the recent past. Before last June’s referendum, the whole of Northern Ireland was reaping rewards from a political order that set to one side the argument about the province’s ultimate future and focused, however imperfectly, on common benefits like investment, tourism and maximising the rewards from the EU.  Brexit destroyed that order, but how many people will remember that and draw the right conclusions?

    Edited by Hugo Dixon