Can our own version of Nicola Sturgeon please step forward
I LIKE Nicola Sturgeon. The Scottish First Minister speaks with passion about her country, and with a logic and calmness that makes you sit up and take notice. You can tell that her ambition for Scotland is genuine and her determination to get the best for her region is sincere. Ever since the Brexit referendum result I have looked on enviously as the Scottish people had their fears articulated, their hopes aired and most importantly their voice heard.
At the same time in Northern Ireland, the only agreed position our political leadership have ever taken on Brexit was the joint letter from then First and deputy First Ministers Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness in August 2016, which seems a political age away now.
Since then, the view of the majority in the region has been largely unheard due to the quirk of the parliamentary arithmetic and the continued policy of abstentionism by Sinn Fein after they wiped out the SDLP representation at Westminster. So when Nicola Sturgeon speaks out, I find myself listening with a mixture of envy and admiration.
In the midst of the most dramatic of political weeks for UK politics in my lifetime, the Scottish First Minister explained why she is opposed to the proposed withdrawal agreement between the UK Government and the European Union. Her biggest objection is that the deal gives Northern Ireland a competitive advantage over Scotland; that by effectively adhering to the regulations of the single market, while being politically out of that market, we would have the upper hand in attracting investment and high quality jobs. Sturgeon referred to the effect on Scotland as ‘devastating.'
In that scenario, with leading politicians from other regions bemoaning the competitive economic advantage we stand to gain, a reasonable observer might expect local politicians to welcome the deal with open arms. But we are not a ‘normal' political democracy and the same rules as elsewhere do not apply here.
The DUP holds the whip hand locally; only one of our local MPs to actually sit in the House of Commons doesn't come from that party and so their influence and profile and disproportionately high. They have their own party political reasons for rejecting the deal (so far) and none of them are based on sound economics.
The rejection comes down to the backstop, the mythical ‘border down the Irish sea' and the perceived long term threat this poses to Northern Ireland's place in the UK. It is short sighted politics at best and it is simply a political misjudgement; the agreement in fact vows to uphold the Good Friday Agreement, in which the political status of this region was settled. If anything the agreement potentially paves the way to an economically stable and prosperous Northern Ireland where the majority of people are content with the status quo, thus pushing thoughts of and demands for a border boll down the agenda.
In the past the business community locally has been wary of raising their voice on political matters, a situation outlined and explained by local hotelier Bill Wolsely on Friday last. At the same event he went on to say that day is done, and businesses need to speak up in support of the Agreement. He didn't go easy on the DUP.
"Now we have an opportunity to do something. We need to encourage our politicians to grasp that opportunity. This is no longer a time to keep our head down. We have an opportunity because of Brexit to have a foot in both camps. What an opportunity we have for business and when business is strong, that makes the community strong and it's good for all.''
The Merchant Hotel owner's comments followed in the wake of an unprecedented expression of support for the deal from all the main business representative bodies in Northern Ireland. I first detected that willingness to challenge the political status quo this time last year when the President of the NI Chamber of Commerce called out the local parties at the organisations annual dinner. When Elvena Graham appealed for a return of Stormont and of the political ‘limbo', she received a sustained round of enthusiastic applause.
On Brexit, the organisations Manufacturing NI, the NI Freight Association and NI Retail Consortium led the way in their presentations to the Brexit Committee in the Commons; they pulled no punches and were acutely straightforward on the negative impact of a ‘no deal' Brexit outcome.
Now the deal is published their sentiment has been voiced by all of the other business organisations, including, crucially the Ulster Farmer's Union. All have said while this deal is not perfect, it is better than a no deal outcome and should be supported. That is a very uncomfortable and very unfamiliar situation for the DUP and they have not responded well to date.
The agreement may have little chance of getting through the House of Commons, though do not rule out the same deal being brought back and back again for the 643 MPs to vote on and eventually agreed, but the eleven NI representatives are being left in little doubt as to how the majority of the business community want them to vote, and that reflects the NI referendum poll.
Brexit has changed everything. It has even given voice to those who previously stayed silent and that can only be a good thing. Will it bring forward our very own version of Nicola Sturgeon?
:: Brendan Mulgrew (firstname.lastname@example.org) is managing partner at MW Advocate (www.mwadvocate.com). Follow him on Twitter @brendanbelfast
:: Next week: Claire Aiken