Peter Mandelson: Brexit’s threat to the Irish economy could see voters turn to unification

It would be an extraordinary irony for the very union the DUP holds so dear to become threatened by the Brexit they have done so much to champion

February 26, 2018
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Tony Blair is not fond of hyperbole. So when he said the other day that “there are politicians prepared to sacrifice the Good Friday Agreement on the altar of Brexit,” adding that “this is irresponsibility that is frankly sickening,” you know something bad is going on.

Remarkable as it is, it seems there really is no price too high for some Brexiters to take the UK out of the EU, including the reintroduction of a hard Irish border and the political repercussions for the island’s political stability.

Indeed, the Tory MEP Daniel Hannan, Owen Patterson—a former Northern Ireland secretary—and the Labour MP Kate Hoey seem to relish the prospect. If their recent pronouncements are to be believed, they apparently see it as an opportunity to bring down the Good Friday Agreement altogether.

Of the three, Hoey has long harboured a bitterness towards the GFA—not because she is a devotee of the killing and maiming that it ended but because she thinks the Agreement legitimized those in the Republican movement who perpetrated this violence. She is not the sort to move on.

Hoey also resents the other chief feature of the Agreement, which is a shared responsibility with the Irish government in Northern Ireland’s affairs.

Her views are shared by the largest unionist party in Northern Ireland, the DUP, and it seems—more surprisingly—by the former unionist First Minister ousted by the DUP, Lord Trimble, who was an architect of the Good Friday Agreement.

Trimble knows how inflammatory the border is and how Republicans would use its reappearance to support their cause. Inevitably, it would be seized on by Republican factions in an attempt to justify a return to violence.

But two things have converged in Unionist minds, including, apparently, his: a disillusionment with devolved power-sharing that has eroded confidence in the Agreement, and a belief in a clean-break Brexit that makes a hard border in Ireland inevitable.

Together, these developments threaten to shake the GFA to its foundations.

A threat to an all-island economy

Yet there is a key dimension to both which could have even bigger implications for Northern Ireland’s future: a threat to the prosperous, all-island economy embracing north and south which has been boosted by the border’s disappearance and the political stability of the past twenty years.

The peace settlement in 1998 was built on a duality—political separateness of the north within a single, all-island economy.

Joint membership of the EU by Britain and Ireland, creating the single customs area, anchored this duality, creating an unimpeded flow of goods, services and people back and forth across the invisible border.

This all-island prosperity is now taken for granted and, if undermined, I suspect could affect political attitudes and, in time, voting behaviour.

The re-insertion of the border, and the customs barriers and policing this would bring, would undercut the free working of the economy, endanger jobs and harm a vital feature of the Agreement.

This is why the UK government was compelled to agree, last December, to take all measures necessary to prevent this from happening.

The problem is that it has no workable idea how this would be achieved outside the European customs union.

Economics over politics?

Pro-Brexit unionists will assume that they will carry their side of the community in their acceptance of a hard border and indifference to the GFA—but I would not be so sanguine.

If this means endangering investment and jobs, public opinion may choose to prioritise economics over politics and lead more moderate opinion in Northern Ireland to question the direction and, in time, the validity of unionism itself.

Under the GFA, Northern Ireland will remain in the UK until a majority of the population vote otherwise. The Unionist majority in the population remains intact for the time being.

But my perception is that moderate unionist voters, alongside other centrist, non-sectarian opinion in the electorate, might combine with the rest of the population to question the direction that Brexit, and a weakening of the GFA, is taking them in.

If enough people—especially, I suspect, younger people who feel less trapped inside Northern Ireland’s old sectarian divide—come to think that Brexit is forcing them to choose between Northern Ireland’s existing constitutional settlement and their future economic interests, I would not count on the former prevailing indefinitely.

It would be an extraordinary irony for the very union the DUP holds so dear to become threatened by the Brexit they have done so much to champion.

But this is amongst many unforeseen consequences that could yet unfold as a result of Brexit.