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Brexit, backstop and integrity

Jesuit Bishop Alan McGuckian says that Northern Ireland must continue to be recognised as a ‘special case’, in this post-Brexit era. He says the Good Friday Agreement is what allows the Britishness of Northern Ireland citizens, and the Irishness of  Northern Ireland citizens, to be acknowledged and respected.

Writing in an opinion piece published in The  Mail on Sunday, 14 October, 2018, the Bishop of Raphoe, Co. Donegal, he said, “Northern Ireland remains a special case and it must have special status to reflect that fact. It should remain a part of the United Kingdom and it must also retain all of the special relationships with the rest of Ireland that the Good Friday Agreement mandates.”

Bishop McGuckian  also drew parallels between the two female British Prime Ministers, Margaret Thatcher and Teresa May. Many years ago Mrs Thatcher, in an effort to placate the Unionist population, once proclaimed that Northern Ireland was “As British as Finchley,” a typical English town and Thatcher’s parliamentary constituency.  “The claim drew smiles even then”, notes the Bishop, ” because… it simply is not so.”  This is because the statement completely ignores the fact that half of Northern Ireland (unlike Finchly) is made up of Nationalists,  and for them, “Northern Ireland is as Irish as Connemara though it is not Irish in the same way as Connemara is.”

Eventually, Mrs Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish agreement. It paved the way for her successors to sign up to the Good Friday Agreement, which has yielded many years of peace in the country.

Today, Prime Minister Teresa May often refers to the “integrity of the United Kingdom” when referring to Irish border and its fate post-Brexit, the Bishop notes. This may be of comfort to pro-Brexit Unionsits like the DUP , “but Mrs May must remember that when Margaret Thatcher made her peace with the truth about Northern Ireland, British AND Irish, she did it in the face of fierce opposition from the DUP. Their opposition was rooted in a rigid reading of the claim that ‘Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley’ and it needed to be faced down then.”  In essence, Bishop McGUckian says the claim needs to be faced down today as well, if we are to protect the “precious peace” on this island and uphold the principles of the Good Friday Agreement, an internationally binding treaty.

Northern Ireland should indeed remain part of the UK he argues, “and it must also retain all of the special relationships with the rest of Ireland that the Good Friday Agreement mandates. That Agreement called for ‘parity of esteem’ for the two national identities, recognising the right of all citizens to be considered as Irish or British or, indeed, both.”.

This being the case, Bishop McGuckian believes, “The ‘backstop’ proposal – that there must be a common regulatory area on the island of Ireland in order to safeguard North-South cooperation and the all-island economy – is essential if the gains from the Good Friday Agreement are not to be thrown aside.”

Read the full text of his opinion piece below.

Brexit, backstop and integrity 

Prime Minister Teresa May, when talking about the Backstop in relation to the Irish border, invariably refers to the ‘integrity of the United Kingdom’. The ‘integrity’ of the United Kingdom needs to be examined.

Some years ago, at a time when the contested status of Northern Ireland was pressing upon her, the first female Prime Minister made the claim that “Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley”. The claim drew smiles even then, because when it is put into words and spoken out loud everybody realises that it simply is not so, or at least, not entirely so. It is true that, for unionists, Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley. However, because it is a special case it is not British in the same way as Finchley. In due course Margaret Thatcher signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement and her successors signed the Downing Street Declaration and the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. They have, in a cumulative way, recognised the other half of the Northern Ireland equation, namely that for nationalists Northern Ireland is as Irish as Connemara though it is not Irish in the same way as Connemara is.

Now, as a result of Brexit, another female prime minister is faced with the same conundrum as Margaret Thatcher was. She too must come to recognise, as Thatcher did, that in its Britishness AND Irishness Northern Ireland is a special case. It was common membership of the European Union that gave Britain and Ireland the context within which Northern Ireland could be held at peace. The noble compromise ultimately expressed in the Good Friday Agreement allows Northern Ireland to be at peace in its Britishness AND its Irishness.

Mrs May must remember that when Margaret Thatcher made her peace with the truth about Northern Ireland, British AND Irish, she did it in the face of fierce opposition from the DUP. Their opposition was rooted in a rigid reading of the claim that “Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley” and it needed to be faced down then. The DUP had to be helped to live in a world that is ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’. The status of Northern Ireland that has given us twenty precious years of peace is rooted in a binding international agreement and is thereby a British and an Irish constitutional reality.

Now, post-Brexit, that reality must be honoured and maintained. Northern Ireland remains a special case, and it must have special status to reflect that fact. It should remain a part of the United Kingdom and it must also retain all of the special relationships with the rest of Ireland that the Good Friday Agreement mandates. That Agreement called for ‘parity of esteem’ for the two national identities, recognising the right of all citizens to be considered as Irish or British or, indeed, both. The ‘backstop’ proposal – that there must be a common regulatory area on the island of Ireland in order to safeguard North-South cooperation and the all-island economy – is essential if the gains from the Good Friday Agreement are not to be thrown aside.

At present the Irish Border issue is holding up the negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom. It seems that the only answer to avoid a renewed border in Ireland is for the whole of the UK to be tied into arrangements that make eminent sense for the island of Ireland. The Irish question should not be allowed to stand in the way of the freedom of Great Britain to choose its own future.

Northern Ireland is different; it is as British as Finchley and it is NOT British like Finchley.

The future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union must reflect that reality. Therefore it is utterly appropriate, and for the good of everyone, that Northern Ireland remain in the United Kingdom and at the same time that it be aligned for the free movement of goods with the rest of Ireland. The European Union will find ways to accommodate this necessary anomaly. So should the United Kingdom. Indeed the ‘integrity’ of the United Kingdom may well demand it.