By Dr John Kyle
The Nobel laureate Niels Bohr famously said, ‘Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.’ How true. The negotiators of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement in 1998 could not have predicted Brexit but they might have foreseen the problems that have arisen because of it. We are in a difficult time.
A geopolitical realignment of the magnitude of Brexit will inevitably have consequences, and not least for Northern Ireland since the scaffolding of the EU was instrumental in facilitating the construction of the carefully crafted and balanced political structure that is the GFA. The structure is still wobbling like a building after an earthquake.
As regards the NI Protocol, Unionists are virtually unanimous, that the damage it has inflicted on the GFA is unacceptable. This is profoundly significant given that the authority and legitimacy of the Agreement lay in the overwhelming support that it received from all sides. Despite this, Unionists have been deeply frustrated that many players have dismissed their concerns as Unionist whinging; it is much more than that. The glacial pace at which negotiations have progressed has added insult to injury. Political instability is damaging in most jurisdictions, but in a post conflict society like Northern Ireland it is much worse. Hard won progress achieved over years can evaporate in weeks. The exclusion of local politicians from the negotiating table giving us minimal sense of control over our destiny has fanned the flames of frustration. It is hardly surprising therefore to see the strength of support among voters for the DUP’s decision to withdraw from the Executive.
However, it is important to step back and consider the longer view. Since the Brexit referendum, support for Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom has waned, particularly within the political middle ground and especially among younger voters. The persuadables are being persuaded to look more favourably on the prospect of a United Ireland, not by convincing arguments from the Ireland’s Future brigade, whose hubris and animosity towards unionists puts many people off, but by the obvious dysfunction of our political institutions. The fact that our socioeconomic problems are not being tackled by the politicians that we elected is draining away support for the pro-Union position. The fact that Northern Ireland plc. isn’t working plays directly into the hands of those who want to destroy it.
By far the most persuasive argument for Northern Ireland to remain within the UK is to create an economically successful, socially cohesive, culturally vibrant and inclusive Province. And the fact is, that there is huge potential for Northern Ireland to be precisely that. The transformation of our economy since the signing of the GFA has been remarkable. We are world leaders in cybersecurity, the world’s top region for Fintec and have been recognised as one of the top 10 digital economies of the future. We have one of the leading agri-food sectors in Europe, two internationally recognised universities and a tourist industry that attracts 21million visitors each year. Our green economy is expanding rapidly, and our creative industries are world famous. This is a beautiful part of the world and great place to live and raise a family.
But this argument is invalidated if Northern Ireland, as a country, is broken and, at the moment, that is how it seems.
Brexit redrew the playing field with implications for everyone but for Unionists the negative elements can be largely eliminated by reform of the Protocol and the potential of this place, if we work together, can be realised, undergirding and securing our place in the United Kingdom. Conversely if we insist that we must win on the Protocol, that all our demands must be met and we refuse to cooperate if they are not, we jeopardise the future. It is essential that we move beyond protest to constructing a successful society, economy and public services. We need to get back to work.
The stakes could not be higher; agreeing a properly renegotiated Protocol could secure Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom for generations.
Dr John Kyle is a retired GP, a former Deputy Leader of the Progressive Unionist Party and presently an Ulster Unionist Party Cllr on Belfast City Council.