Stephen Farry: Political deadlock `risks Brexit tragedy

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry. Picture by Mal McCann

THERE is a very real danger of a major tragedy unfolding with Northern Ireland having no effective governmental voice to represent its interests when the best, and perhaps only, opportunity to achieve a special deal to address the sharp effects of Brexit is presenting itself.

In the future, even more than now, Brexit will be regarded as a catastrophic mistake for the UK as a whole. In all possible scenarios, the UK will be diminished politically and economically, and indeed in some, it may not even survive as a single state. There will be effects for the Republic of Ireland, and the EU as whole. But the effects on Northern Ireland will be the most acute.

Brexit is posing a major challenge to the future stability of this region.

Northern Ireland can only function if it is underpinned by sharing, integration and interdependence. The Good Friday Agreement recognised the balance of relationships through its various strands, and facilitated engagement on both a North-South, and East-West axis. It provides space for the development of open, mixed and multiple identities, a trend that has accelerated in recent years.

Yet Brexit entails the erection of new boundaries, the creation of fresh divisions, and forces the making of stark choices.

Arguably, Northern Ireland is a domino wobbling in the wake of Brexit. Party political differences and long-term political positioning around Brexit probably contributed to the current political impasse, and without some form of special deal, the contradictions posed to the concept of a shared Northern Ireland may deliver profound consequences.

These dangers are best mitigated through some form of special status or a special deal for Northern Ireland that recognises its unique circumstances and the particular challenges that are thrown up. This could include special arrangements in relation to both the Single Market and the Customs Union, and adherence to the four freedoms relating to movement of labour, goods, services and capital.

Thankfully, a window of opportunity for Northern Ireland has opened up. In the UK's Article 50 notification letter, there was some acknowledgement of the unique challenges facing Northern Ireland, and the need to protect the peace process.

There are even stronger commitments in the draft negotiating guidelines from the European Council, including reference to the need for `flexible and imaginative solutions'. This has been more than reinforced by the negotiating resolution adopted by the European Parliament.

All governments and institutions are committing to a frictionless border on island. While this would be extraordinarily challenging in the context of a Customs Union frontier emerging on the island, there now at least has to be an expectation of adherence to this objective.

Furthermore, important EU figures such as, lead negotiator for the European Council, Michel Barnier, lead negotiator for the European Parliament, Guy Verhofstadt, and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel have all expressed concern to address the particular challenges posed to both Ireland and Northern Ireland.

However, they are all stressing a desire to address the Irish issues at an early stage in the Article 50 negotiations. In practice, this means towards the end of this year. And the expectation would be that Northern Ireland would have a strong governmental voice to articulate its interests - that means a regional Executive.

But today Northern Ireland doesn't have a functioning Executive, let alone a detailed and coherent plan. Even if devolution is restored over the coming weeks, and while recognising that some useful background work will have already been conducted by the civil service, time is short and a mountain must still be climbed in terms of what needs to be done.

All of this puts in context the current political deadlock. This impasse could not be happening at a worse point in the 19 years since the Good Friday Agreement.

Any continuation of the current governmental vacuum or the return of direct rule would deny Northern Ireland that chance to have its interests and circumstances fully taken into account in the most disruptive political process for decades. We may have to live with the consequences for many years.

:: Stephen Farry MLA is the deputy leader of the Alliance Party.

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