The fallout from the Brexit vote rumbles on amid predictions of recession in the British economy, and in the north. The last week has seen millions sign an online petition and at the weekend thousands marched in London against Brexit. And to add to the political turmoil in Britain Boris Johnson is ‘betrayed’ by his erstwhile colleague Michael Gove, who has decided he will make the next best leader for the Conservatives, and Nigel Farage has stood down as leader of UKIP.
There is also the obvious rowing back by the leave campaign of claims and commitments they made during the referendum campaign. As you travel along northern roads there are still posters on lampposts proclaiming: “We send the EU £350 million a week – let’s fund our NHS instead.” The trouble is that all of the leave spokespersons have spent the last week denying that commitment.
In Europe the leaders of the EU have made it clear that for Britain there is no going back.
The British referendum result is probably the most serious political and economic crisis to face this island in many years. This decision is bad for the island of Ireland, North and South.
How all of this will play out on our little island is still a matter of considerable conjecture. Will the new Conservative Prime Minister – as he or she tries to manage a divided party and negotiate their way out of the EU – be prepared to make up the financial gaps that will emerge as EU finding for our farming community and industrial, community, tourism and business sectors dries up?
And what of the cross border connections that have grown stronger in importance and numbers since the Good Friday Agreement created a range of statutory cross border institutions? Or the agreements reached between local councils on each side of the border corridor who have agreed to increase co-operation?
One example of how the border has become increasingly irrelevant in recent years is the level of cooperation that now takes place between the two health services on the island. On Monday Michelle O’Neill and Simon Harris, the two Ministers for Health, jointly announced a forty two million pound investment in an all-Ireland children’s heart service at the opening of a new cardiac unit in Dublin. That is good for Ireland North and South. All of these areas of cooperation are now in question because of Brexit.
On Monday the North South Ministerial Council meeting took place in Dublin. The agenda was dominated by Brexit. The overriding imperative at this time is to ensure that the Executive and the Irish government cooperate in managing what must be a joint response to Brexit.
In this context there are two immediate priorities. The first is to protect the peace process, the Good Friday Agreement, its institutions and the two economies on this island. While the Executive and the Irish government must lead on this maximum cooperation and coordination would be enhanced if it involved all of the parties on the island.
That is why I wrote to the Taoiseach, to the First and deputy First Minister and to all political party leaders, north and south, to propose the establishment of a National Forum. It purpose would be to discuss how the vote of the clear majority of citizens in the north, who want to remain in the EU, will be respected and defended. It would also seek to meet the unique challenges Ireland will face as a consequence of the referendum outcome.
The Taoiseach’s public response, given in the Dáil on Tuesday was to limit his comment to it being “a good idea” and “an idea with merit.” There was no commitment to establish a Forum. The initial positive noises from some government Ministers at the weekend appears to have been blunted by the DUP’s rejection of it. Their position must not be allowed to stand in the way of its establishment. It’s important to recall that the DUP stood against the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. They lost that referendum vote. In the Brexit referendum they lost that vote also.
In the course of Tuesday’s Dáil business three opposition leaders expressed their support for a national Forum. I have asked the Taoiseach to meet party leaders to progress this proposal. There is clearly a consensus that maximum cooperation and coordination is needed. The ‘remain’ vote, like the referendum on the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, uniquely brought together unionists, nationalists, republicans and others in common cause.
I also believe that there will be enormous goodwill for a Forum that seeks to defend the North’s vote to remain; protect the peace process; the Good Friday Agreement, and our two economies.
I have no doubt that civic unionism and civic society in general would attend a Forum along with representatives from the agriculture sector, including the agri-food sector, business and the community and voluntary sector, and others.
The second priority involves the EU itself. It has grown enormously in recent years both in terms of the number of countries that are part of it, the greater centralisation of power, and the dominance of the bureaucracy that runs it.
Sinn Féin has a long standing position of critical engagement with the EU. It is one that is shared by many citizens, especially those angered by the treatment of the Irish state by the EU at the height of the financial crisis following 2008.
It was the EU which punished a compliant Fianna Fáil/Green government over the banking crisis landing the state and citizens for decades to come with €64 billion of banding debt.
Later efforts to burn bond holders were blocked by the European Central Bank (ECB) and the EU. The Troika, which included the EU Commission and the ECB imposed severe austerity policies on an equally submissive Fine Gael/Labour government that impoverished many households and forced hundreds of thousands to flee overseas.
And then there is the EU’s response to the refugee crisis which has seen 10,000 people drown in the Mediterranean in the last three years. Europe’s handling of this crisis and its deal with Turkey has provoked widespread criticism.
The political crisis created by Brexit provides an opportunity to change the direction of the EU. To make it democratically accountable to the needs of citizens. To refocus its energies on social justice and equality and the defence of human rights.
The post-Brexit situation will challenge us all to think and act differently. We should grasp the opportunity to redesign the constitutional and political future of the island of Ireland and of Europe. It should not be wasted.