On September 27th 2021 , a symposium was held in All Saints’ Church Mullingar Co Westmeath on the subject of ,”Brexit, Borders And The Greater Good” in Northern Ireland. The symposium was addressed by the Church of Ireland Archbishop of Armagh ,Dr John McDowell and by Professor Katy Hayward of Queen’s University Belfast. The event was chaired by the Bishop of Meath and Kildare,Most Rev. Pat Storey.Bishop Storey made history in 2013 when she was consecrated as the first woman bishop in Britain or Ireland.
Professor Katy Hayward lectures in Political Sociology and is an internationally renowned expert on the subject of Brexit and of political borders.In her talk she described the impact being made on Northern Ireland by the departure of the UK from the EU. She said that Brexit had “raised existential questions with regard to territory,identity and borders.” Northern Ireland was now in “an unhappy limbo” and it was “possible to feel the heat of the past on our heels.”
She explained the problems arising from the Northern Ireland Protocol contained within the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement.The Protocol effectively keeps Northern Ireland within the EU Single Market for goods-thus avoiding the return of a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. But the Protocol obliges the UK to check goods moving between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. This has created an Irish Sea Border and created a barrier within the internal UK single market.
Prof. Hayward explained how Unionists oppose the Protocol because they see it as undermining Northern Ireland’s status as a full part of the UK and threatening their British status. There have been violent street protests against the Protocol in Loyalist areas and the DUP Leader,Jeffrey Donaldson,has threatened to pull out of government and bring down the Executive and Assembly if the Protocol is not amended or dropped. Former First Minister,David Trimble has warned that the Protocol risks undermining the Good Friday Agreement.
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Prof.Hayward noted that “where there is uncertainty,fear grows.” Unionists are uncertain about the future of Northern Ireland and fearful that Brexit and the Protocol make a united Ireland more likely. There is alack of trust in Northern Ireland now,with Unionists having litle trust in the British or Irish governments or the EU. Nationalists in the North also believe that Brexit makes a united Ireland more likely. They do not trust the British government Ireland-although they are inclined to trust the Irish government and the EU. However surveys carried out by Prof Hayward and others do not indicate majority support in the North for Irish unity. Around 52% of voters would vote to remain in the UK and just 37% would support a united Ireland.
Brexit was largely driven by English nationalism and,according to Prof Hayward,the British government,in “getting Brexit done”,has undermined devolution within the UK. She said that Northern Ireland’s voice was not heard during the negotiations over the Withdrawal Agreement and the Province was taken out of the EU against the wishes of a majority of local voters. For most of the negotiation period there was no Northern Ireland government because of the collapse of the institutions in February 2017. She also noted that some parts of the Good Friday Agreement had never actually been fully implemented. A Civic Forum,which was supposed to give wider civil society-trade unions,churches,the business community,a voice was not restored when devolution returned and a cross border civil society forum never set up at all.
Professor Hayward said that the Good Friday Agreement had made the Border almost irrelevant and invisible,while the Agreement had also made it possible for people to identify as Irish or British or Northern Irish.. Brexit was bringing back the border and questions of identity. Cross community contacts were becoming harder and people felt that they had no control over Brexit or what was happening.
Archbishop McDowell talked about his childhood in working class Protestant East Belfast in the Sixties. Before entering Church ministry,he had worked for Short Brothers aero engineering-one of Northern Ireland’s most famous businesses. His father had worked for the same company. Before his election as Archbishop of Armagh in 2020,he had served as Bishop of Clogher. During his time in that cross -border diocese,he had written to Boris Johnston to explain the complexities of the Border A visit to one of his parishes necessitated crossing the Border eight times.
The Archbishop expressed his concerns about the way in which Northern Ireland had developed into a “Market Society” in which the “dignity of work” seemed to be forgotten about and the number of working poor was on the increase. He criticised the lack of vocational training and apprenticeships and that the development of a meritocracy was undermining the common good by making the less well educated/skilled felt left behind.
Archbishop McDowell said that Brexit and the Covid crisis had shown up the divisions in Northern Irish society. These divisions were not unique to the North. In a memorable phrase,the Archbishop said that the Brexit vote,the election of Donald Trump and the rise of populist leaders in Brazil,Hungary and elsewhere meant that over the last five years, “The rest of the world began to look like Northern Ireland.” He suggested that divisions into majorities and minorities would no longer work. “We are all minorities now”.-North and South.
Minorities were not going to go away and some means would have to be found to allow society to hold together-a recognition of common objectives and of “the things we do together.” Political decisions have to take account of minorities.This was not done with Brexit,where the views of the 48% who voted Remain (including voting majorities in two of the four UK Nations) were not taken into account.
The Archbishop talked about the importance of respect in trying to work for the common good of society. Respect for one another is at the foundation of human society.-“You are other than me-but I will listen to you.” Northern Ireland suffers from a mentality in which what is seen as good for one side must be bad for the other side. “We are in danger of no longer being able to understand and act in the common good. More of our society than we think depends on holding back on our individual and group aspirations. and saying that there are some things which can only be good for me if they are good for you also.”
“If we don’t start to think about that we will have a society forever divided into winners and losers. We win a political argument and say “right,that’s it,we know what to do.’. But in a properly working democracy the people who are not in the majority are not going to go away. What am I going to do about that? Am I going to say,in the long term we are going to have to occupy the same space,so we’re going to find something we can all gather around.”
Dr McDowell told the young people in the audience that their vocation “is to be the prophets of this country”-renewing the vision of what it is to belong to a nation,and helping to answer what sort of a nation we want to be.
The presentations by Archbishop McDowell and Professor Hayward were followed by a Q & A session. Issues raised included the financial support received by Northern Ireland from the British government;the need to understand the Unionist tradition and the question of whether the political centre ground in Northern Ireland.
Bishop Storey expressed her hope that “this occasion will make an important contribution to building the reconciliation and understanding that is needed.”
Among those in attendance were Minister Robert Troy T.D.Minister Peter Burke T.D,Deputy Sorca Clarke T.D,and Senator Emer Currie. Senator Currie is Fine Gael Spokesperson on Northern Ireland in the Seanad,and is the daughter of former SDLP and Fine Gael politician Austin Currie..
Canon Alastair Graham,rector of All Saints’ and organiser of the event thanked “the distinguished speakers” and stated that, “In light of developments in the North regarding Brexit,it seemed appropriate and important that those of us in the midlands of Ireland would be informed of the situation.”
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