Brian Feeney: EU decision changes the question on Irish unity
Saturday’s formal statement of the EU’s negotiating position is of enormous importance for Ireland north and south.
While Enda Kenny has been careful to avoid any public display of triumphalism Irish government sources are cock-a-hoop at the brilliant success of Ireland’s diplomatic offensive led by their man in Brussels, Declan Kelleher, ambassador to the EU and one of Dublin’s most important diplomats.
Donald Tusk, the European Council president stated in shorthand three priorities for negotiation: people, money and Ireland. That is a formidable reaffirmation and endorsement of Ireland’s nationalism but also in practical terms places a satisfactory political and economic outcome for the island at the centre of negotiations with the floundering British.
You can gauge its importance because Ian Óg and Jeffrey Donaldson were both out of the traps instantly to say it wasn’t important and made no difference to anything, proof if proof were needed of just how significant Tusk’s statement and the unanimity of the EU 27 were. The unionist reaction is also an indication of how closely wedded the DUP MPs are to the idiotic catastrophe that Brexit is for the whole of the UK but particularly for the north. Why are you not surprised?
The support for the Irish government’s position that the north will rejoin the EU if we vote for Irish unity cannot be underestimated. It changes the question. From now on there is an attractive option for everyone here. It’s not, would you vote for a united Ireland, an entity so far unspecified, but would you vote to join the EU? As Britain sinks further into the mire in the 2020s and disaster overwhelms the north’s agriculture industry when the Conservatives sacrifice farming for sweetheart deals with the motor manufacturing industry there remains an alternative.
What the Irish government has succeeded in doing is to separate the north from the UK negotiating position. Only here do people have the automatic option to vote to join the EU, an option the Scots would love to have. The bottom line is it’s a crushing defeat for the Unionist with a capital ‘U’ concept that all parts of the UK leave the EU together. The north can return any time it wants. A referendum here is different from anywhere else in the UK. Let that sink in.
Already the disastrous impact of what Lord Heseltine has called the most stupid decision Britain has made since the 1930s has begun to take effect. The newly resurrected Tony Blair, returning Lazarus-like to the political fray, points out that the reason the pound is down 15 per cent is because international finance decided immediately last summer that’s how much poorer Britain will be as a result of the Brexit policies the gormless Theresa May is pursuing. That 15 per cent is their cold calculation, not whether international financiers agree or disagree with Brexit. They don’t care.
Saturday’s EU statement of guidelines puts the tin lid on the gloating of the Paisleys and Donaldsons that northern nationalists are trapped in an isolated UK fenced off by a hard border. Are these guys nuts? Do they really imagine destroying what passes for an ‘economy’ here is a good idea or even something worth gambling away just to get one over on nationalists?
The question is, how many unionists will agree with them that it’s a good idea to sink into a diminishing, xenophobic, Empire 2.0 fantasy Little England in squalid isolation or opt for a modern, outward-looking European-wide society with human rights and equality for all guaranteed by law?
As EU subsidies which underpin the peace process and keep agriculture here viable vanish after 2020 and Conservative cuts destroy the NHS and welfare system it may well occur to unionists across the board that when they run out of grass to eat it might be a good idea to vote to join the EU.
Of course by that time it may also have dawned on Theresa May and her right wing crew that there is no pot of gold outside the EU and they might decide to crawl back into the customs union and single market.
Who’d have thought the north would ever yearn to join a more prosperous south?