BREXIT BREATHING SPACE

25 October 2019 No Comments by The Northern Standard

While the promise of a momentous breakthrough that would deliver some feel of finality to the long-running Brexit saga that hung in the air as we went to press last week was circumscribed somewhat by subsequent events at Westminster, there is, as the cloister bells of deadline sound in our ears again this week, a prevailing sense that some of the sound and the fury has been extracted from the issue and that it is progressing towards a conclusion that holds some realistic prospect of the doomsday no-deal scenario being sidestepped.

Although the train may yet by derailed by Boris Johnson’s penchant for brinkmanship or some other convulsion in the House of Commons, we seem to find ourselves for a time in a period of Brexit breathing space, when we can contemplate the future economic and social landscape and what relationships will be like between Ireland, the UK and the EU in the years to come with some degree of considered evaluation and detached analysis.

Sinn Féin did not waste any time in venturing down this road. They convened at short notice what they described as an information event in Monaghan’s Four Seasons Hotel on Sunday evening last under the banner of “Brexit: What Next?” and had party leader Mary Lou McDonald joined by MEP Matt Carthy, TD Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin and MP Michelle Gildernew to give their perspective on what the future might hold. A conspicuously large attendance also heard contributions from representatives of the Border Communities Against Brexit campaign group and the civic Nationalist body Ireland’s Future.

What proved a very interesting taking of the temperature from one important political and ideological perspective on the island had two recurrent themes: advancement of the United Ireland conversation and vigilance lest political Unionism contrive to wrest for itself a veto mechanism on the deal from the current horse-trading in Westminster.

SF would no doubt insist that these priorities were not mutually exclusive. But there is perhaps at least a very delicate balancing act to be struck between encouraging those of Unionist tradition to enter into the constitutional conversation and adopting a strong adversarial position against any tactic adopted by political Unionism which would see it have an effective thumbs-down power on the Brexit agreement. MP Michelle Gildernew did encourage the audience to bypass political Unionism to engage with grassroots Unionism in the United Ireland discussion – but did not hand out any comebacks for budding conversationalists if they were told by the grassroots that we elected people to do our talking for us and you should talk to them.

Perhaps the conflict inherent in SF’s ambition to get the party started on a United Ireland while at the same time ensuring that Unionism does not get the drop on them in the Brexit backroom barter makes the case for their political opponents that now is certainly too uncertain and too sensitive a time to hold a Border poll. But accepting that argument would ignore the undeniable fact, very evident at Sunday night’s meeting but also discernible in many other formal and informal arenas of discourse across our county and the wider Border region, that the conversation on a United Ireland has not only begun but is in full train, and is being engaged in as much in the everyday language of commerce and common sense as it is in the more sonorous tones of clashing political and cultural ideologies.

Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil will for the time being undoubtedly hold fast to their “the hour is not now” stance on a referendum to end partition. But they are going to have to engage in the conversation to explain why rather than merely stand disapprovingly outside of it.

Both right-of-centre heavyweights, might, however, have other things on their minds as a result of the Brexit ship avoiding the rocks and belaying for a time in calmer waters. Some headstrong Fine Gaelers have been nudging their leader in the direction of a snap General Election, presumably on the basis that his (apparently) breakthrough summit with Mr Johnson in the prelude to the deal being struck can be sold as the stroke of statesmanship that made Brexit go away. The problem with this approach is two-fold: Brexit has not really gone away, and could very well come back to haunt Mr Varadkar and his Cabinet. And the voting public might not see Leo as the Brexit hero his party would like to present him as.

Over in FF town, Micheál Martin’s ear is no doubt being bent by those in his party who would also see the prospect of a Brexit dawn as the time to pull the plug on the current Government’s life support machine and go to the country. But the stakes are high for FF if they precipitate an election before the end of the current Dáil term rather than bide their time and let the Confidence and Supply era run its full course. The Irish public will trudge to the polls at this time of the year with as much enthusiasm as the Shakespearean lad “creeping like snail unwillingly to school”, and might not bestow much largesse on those responsible for sending them out in the wet and the cold to vote. Mr Martin wants to lead the next Government from a position of strength, bolstered by a smaller party or two at the most, and certainly does not want to swap chairs with Mr Varadkar and be on the other side of that uncomfortable Confidence and Supply marriage of convenience.

Across the water, Mr Johnson and the vagabond remnants of the Tories are also trying to read the election runes and pick the most propitious time in which to run to the country. The birth and troubled youth of Brexit was after all more about internal British politics than it ever was about principled disengagement from the European concept – why should the final chapters of the story have a different leitmotif?

It is perhaps the way of things for politicians to be always governed by the exigencies of the next election. But those who contributed to the animated discussion at the SF- organised meeting in Monaghan last week were right about one thing at the very least – the conversation about the post- Brexit landscape, a conversation that must inevitably address the constitutional question, has already begun and it is about things a great deal more significant and longer-lasting than who the winners and losers might be in the next Dáil or House of Commons elections.

Now, in this precious Brexit breathing space, is surely the time for communities, policy-makers, businesspeople and neighbours – not just the politicians – to be having meaningful conversations of their own about how life should be on the island they want to share together in the years to come.

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