Northern Ireland news

Colum Eastwood: Despite our differences we need to create a united and prosperous home place

Anti-Brexit protestors outside the Houses of Parliament, Westminster, London. Picture by Jonathan Brady/PA Wire
Colum Eastwood SDLP leader

IN a sign of how much has changed over the course of the last three years, one of the most important acts of the new Assembly has been the unanimous decision to reject Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement.

Parties which were at each other’s throats in the middle of the referendum campaign, and in subsequent elections, set aside their differences to unite in the substantial common interests of those we represent.

In a powerful statement of opposition to a form of Brexit that will diminish workers’ rights, degrade our shared identity and damage our economic interests, each of the devolved administrations has now withheld consent for Boris Johnson’s agreement.

It demonstrates the narrowness of this government that they are prepared to override those concerns in a sop to a form of populist isolationism that has gripped the English electorate.

We don’t have to pretend that the coalition we’ve built is anything but uneasy. Parties in the North all have very different reasons for opposing the form of Brexit that is being forced upon us. But after years of division and deadlock, it’s time that we pursued a politics of compromise. That’s where the power of our politics has always been.

The Withdrawal Agreement does meet our principle objective of avoiding a hard border across this island. A 500km border with more crossings than the entire eastern frontier of Europe was never going to lend itself to checks and controls.

The British Government wasted far too much negotiating time, and capital, chasing phantom technology. The business community in Northern Ireland deserves an immense amount of credit for the informed and energetic campaign they undertook to alter the emerging trade trajectory. Where myths and mistruths clouded the debate, our business leaders were quick to introduce evidence and experience.

t a moment of crisis, they rose to meet the challenge. Politicians must now do some heavy lifting of our own.

The imposition of new borders on these islands, wherever it happens, comes with a cost. A sea border is not something we should celebrate.

The threat of new tariffs on ‘at-risk’ goods that have to be absorbed up front by local businesses, barriers to the supply of component parts in the manufacturing sector and interruptions to freight transport models will have an immediate economic impact. Today marks the end of one phase of negotiations but the next phase will determine the extent of the pain we face.

But we all know that the spectre of new borders is about more than just trade and economic output. It is about more than just lorry queues in Larne.

Nationalists understand the profound scarring effect of partition on our community and on this island. A new border in the Irish Sea will affect our unionist neighbours in a similar way. An island of scars will be harder to heal. So it is in our own interest, and in the interests of those we live alongside, to work together to resist deeper divisions between these islands and between our people.

In the week that we mourned the loss of Seamus Mallon, we should reflect on his core philosophy and life’s work. In his memoir, he recounts the old Irish wisdom Ar scáth a chéile a mhaireann na daoine. We live in each other’s shadow. In this moment, in spite of our differing long term aspirations, we need to recall the power and strength of cooperation. And our overriding objective should be to create a united, prosperous and just shared home place.

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