Monday, 30 December 2019

Ulster at the Crossroads - yet again. Part Three.

Ulster Crossroads
By Willie Drennan

 Considering options at the Crossroads.

Very soon the people of Northern Ireland will have to decide which road to take: the one connected to the UK and the world beyond, or the one that remains within the EU.

A Border Poll just now however would be the same thing as a 2nd EU Referendum for the people of Northern Ireland: the notion of a Dublin-controlled united Ireland is currently not an option. Ireland is currently part and parcel of the EU Project and is essentially governed from Brussels.

A 2nd EU Referendum only makes sense once the whole of the UK has left the EU for a number of years. In the 2016 referendum the British people collectively instructed government and parliament to deliver a UK exit from the EU. If that result cannot be respected and implemented, for the whole of the UK, then democracy as we know it is denied to part of the UK.

The 2016 referendum was about deciding if the UK should Leave or Remain in the EU. It was not about deciding if parts of the UK should leave or remain in the UK.

Provision in the NI Protocol for a vote in Stormont, 5 years after Brexit for the rest of the UK, is not the same thing as a Border Poll/ 2nd Referendum. It does not provide a clear mechanism for Northern Ireland exiting the EU and being fully integrated in the UK once again.

In such circumstances where democracy has obviously failed the people of Northern Ireland it is hard to comprehend what will happen – extreme reactions to extreme actions of the ruling classes have been the norm throughout history. Notions of independence for Northern Ireland, or parts of Northern Ireland, are already being discussed in certain circles. But with no strong leadership to pull something like that off, such a doomsday scenario does not seem credible for now.

The restoration of the Stormont Assembly is hardly going to help in any way. With its unique system of mandatory coalition it has been proven to be totally dysfunctional to date. Until the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement gets revisited and Stormont goes through root and branch reform it is difficult to imagine how it could ever agree on anything. The politicians and media in Northern Ireland have been enthusiastic to get Stormont up and running again but there is little or no such enthusiasm from anyone else.

Other more positive and innovative options need to be explored. Alternative roads: different roads, need to be created and developed at the crossroads. Alternative roads leading towards economic revival and self-reliance for Northern Ireland.   

Free Ports, Free Zones and Enterprise Zones.

Northern Ireland could become a natural economic zone linking the UK with the EU and the rest of the world: a natural holding zone and processing zone for goods and components of products from the UK and across the world that may also be destined for EU, or vice versa.  Similar Free Ports and zones do exist across the world.
Boris Johnson has talked of such ideas for the UK as a whole, post-Brexit. There could be a strong argument to focus Northern Ireland as the main UK Zone on the basis of its unique situation of sharing a land border with the EU.

Northern Ireland has already suitable infrastructure in the ports of Larne, Belfast and Londonderry that could be developed.

The main plus for the UK in this idea is that it could address the situation where Northern Ireland has become a bit of an economic burden for the UK tax payer: as a direct and indirect result of the 'Troubles'. Northern Ireland now desperately needs to stand on its own two feet again and this could best happen through economic transformation. Being designated a unique Free Port or zone could be the best route towards economic self-sufficiency.

The opportunities for supply chains and other related ventures are not difficult to imagine. The existing industries such as farming and fishing could also benefit: provided the UK makes a clean break from EU interference.

The other plus to this notion could also be that there would be economic spin-off for the rest of the UK and indeed for the Republic of Ireland. It could provide justification for Boris Johnston's notion of a bridge, or tunnel, linking Northern Ireland with Great Britain. It could offer realistic hope that Northern Ireland could once again become a self-reliant economic region that was no longer reliant on support from English taxpayers.

Down the different road a positive Brexit outcome for the whole of the UK, including Northern Ireland, could also be very positive for British/Irish relations. The different road just might lead to new exciting opportunities: while we are in the midst of centenary commemorations of bloodied political division and religious conflict.

The only main road options currently on offer at the crossroads seem to be cementing those historic divisions and offer no new exciting opportunities at all. They could easily take us all back a hundred years.

I can understand the current excitement among pro-Brexit voters in Great Britain who believe the result of the 2016 referendum will finally be respected and implemented. Those of us in Northern Ireland who voted Leave however are not sharing the jubilation as we can see the uncertainty that lies ahead, with the ECJ still having a say in the internal affairs of the UK. 

If nothing else The Common Travel Area and its reference in the NI Protocol should be carefully examined before the nation celebrates Brexit.

See Part One and Part Two

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