Opinion: Self-determination post-Brexit

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The following is a personal opinion piece looking at some of the issues Northern Ireland face it is not a policy position of Northern Ireland Liberal Democrats. Other members may well post alternative views on this issue.

We believe that sovereignty rests with the people and that authority in a democracy derives from the people. We therefore acknowledge their right to determine the form of government best suited to their needs and commit ourselves to the promotion of a democratic federal framework within which as much power as feasible is exercised by the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.

Setting aside national sovereignty when necessary, we will work with other countries towards an equitable and peaceful international order and a durable system of common security. Within the European Community we affirm the values of federalism and integration and work for unity based on these principles.

Extracts from the Premable of the Liberal Democrat Constitution

The Referendum on Thursday was allowed that sovereignty to rest with the people, but as Liberal Democrats we also recognise that decision making power should lie with the nations and regions of the UK. Thus is was that on Friday when the result was known Northern Ireland had voted to remain while the national vote as a whole was to leave.

The issue in Northern Ireland is further frustrated as the result on Friday now means that the border which some of those who argued for Brexit want to control is largely unprotected for 300 miles from Lough Foyle in the North West to Carlingford Lough in the South East. While there are already controls that an be established at airports, port and even the Channel Tunnel there are 300 miles of open countryside that in the past 2 decades we have taken down control points, reopened some access routes and made almost unrecognisable from the time of The Troubles.

Within hours of the decision Theresa Villiers, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, said that the “majority of people in Northern Ireland are content with the political
settlement established under the Belfast Agreement [sic] and Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.” The problem is the settlement with which they were content shifted in the early hours of Friday morning.

Northern Ireland’s place with in the UK is passed primarily upon the Northern Ireland Act, which itself is entrenched within the EU and its institutions. Much of the rights and protections which the parties here spent years negotiating were backed up not only by the UK but also the EU. If we leave the EU and by default its protections the Northern Ireland Act is a void, it needs to be redrafted and readopted by the people. Therefore to start with the foundations of Ms Villiers arguments are crumbling.

The second issue is that the settled will of the people in 1998 was based on both Ireland and the UK having been members of the EU from the point in time. The people agreed that within the EU there was a wider settlement to the peace, a further layer of mobility, flexibility and security. The contentment of the people on Wednesday should not be assumed by anyone without further knowledge to have been the same by Friday. I have seen a number of friends already say that while before they would never have envisioned voting for reunification now they consider it the best option.

Not only did David Cameron take a gamble and lost, the DUP took a different gamble. The DUPs was to be vocal in supporting leave and the people of Northern Ireland would still largely want to be a member of the United Kingdom whatever the outcome. But a number are starting to say they would rather remain part of the EU rather than in an isolationist UK. There are a number of reasons for this and a number of reasons while small u unionists are starting to look elsewhere.

The economic unionistsThese are the ones who look at the financial implications. During the 80s and early 90s many of these could have been persuaded to vote for reunification as a resurgent Ireland would have invested more in jobs and infrastructure in the North than the then Conservative government in Westminster was doing. The fact that the shortcomings of that Tory government came in a large part from EU peace monies is another reason why now these people might vote for a united Ireland.

The liberal unionists: These are the ones who would always have looked at which of the nations had the more liberal legislation. Historically these had always sided with the UK. They have not envisioned at any point to leave as previously the Irish government was dominated by the Roman Catholic Church. But this has become less of an issue now. Indeed the Republic is now more liberal than Northern Ireland which was not the case even in 1998. These people now could look at the change in situation as it being more likely to get improvements in liberal values not from the angry mob that controlled the Brexit message but by a more welcoming and inclusive Ireland.

The stability unionists: These are those who have always maintained what they felt was best for stability. These are the type who historically were nervous about the unknown of the Irish Free State and felt that they would keep as much of Ireland as possible part of the UK. The take a mix of a economic view and a security view into the situation. With the future of the UK uncertain we have to see where those who have considered the UK the most stable future will pitch there tent.

However, whatever you think of this argument nobody at present can know for certain if there is a desire or will within the people of Northern Ireland to have a border poll. The goal posts have been moved dramatically in recent days and nobody if currently certain by what rules we will play the game. Theresa Villiers cannot have determined as she did on Friday that there is no reason to call a border poll, similarly the DUP cannot know if that is not to be.

We live in interesting times, confusing times and changed times.

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