Remember ‘Ulster Says No’? That was the slogan of a mass campaign by unionists in Northern Ireland against the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement which, for the first time, gave the Irish government an institutional role in the governance of the North. It was led by DUP leader Ian Paisley who also opposed the Good Friday Agreement 14 years later.
Paisley first said No in 1974 when he helped smash the fledgling Sunningdale agreement that promised power-sharing between unionists and moderate nationalists. He finally said Yes in 2007 by going into government with Sinn Féin, but now the current DUP leader and NI First Minister, Arlene Foster, is exhibiting shades of early Paisleyism by declaring an emphatic No to the notion of an all-island conference on Brexit.
At the start of the new Dáil term on Wednesday, the Taoiseach said he was finalising plans to convene an all-Ireland “conversation” following the UK’s vote to leave the European Union. What form this conversation will take is anyone’s guess but it will not include the DUP.
That is a pity for a number of reasons. The DUP is the biggest political party in Northern Ireland and, while many of its members hold entrenched views at what it perceives as interference by southern politicians into its affairs, it cannot ignore the fact that Brexit is bound to have an all-Ireland dimension. Ms Foster’s attitude is understandable in one respect, given the Taoiseach’s ham-fisted attempt in July to initiate Brexit talks while insisting that they would have to include discussion of a united Ireland. That was clearly designed to head off Sinn Féin on the subject but it backfired badly by alienating even moderate unionists, particularly as he had earlier suggested an all-island poll on unity in the immediate aftermath of the UK referendum in June.
Earlier this month, the Taoiseach told the annual meeting of the British-Irish Association in Oxford that Brexit is an all-island issue but he needs to get that message across to political leaders in Northern Ireland. He could do worse than follow the lead shown by Albert Reynolds whose role in the peace process is often not fully recognised. As a businessman familiar with the North, Mr Reynolds was able to reach out and communicate with fellow industrialists in Northern Ireland and persuade them that peace would be good for business.
Fast forward to 2016 and it is clear that Brexit will be bad for business, north and south of the border. Indeed, Ryanair chief Michael O’Leary said as much last week when he said the UK Brexit vote has curtailed further route expansion plans from Belfast International Airport, citing the fall in the value of sterling and the expected slowdown of the British economy.
Instead of alienating unionists by making pronouncements about Brexit forums and ‘conversations,’ the Taoiseach should use business leaders in the south to make the argument for an all-island dimension to their counterparts in Northern Ireland who, in turn, may be able to persuade the DUP to say Yes.
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