Religion in Northern Ireland is like the Hotel California. You can check out, but you can never leave
Five years after the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), I was in Belfast again for work. This time there was no border, no indignity and no fear. Hearing my Dublin accent, a man in his sixties asked, “Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
“Neither, I’m atheist!” I said triumphantly.
“Yes, but are you a Catholic atheist or a Protestant atheist?”
Religion in Northern Ireland is like the Hotel California, I was told. You can check out, but you can never leave.
Today marks the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Having witnessed the horrors of the Troubles, I never take peace in the province for granted.
When I visited the region on a family holiday last year, children of all religious persuasions played together on the beach. By then, the GFA was firmly embedded and a shared European identity had taken hold. What preoccupied Catholic and Protestant parents alike was not religion, but how to safeguard the hard-won social cohesion and economic security amid increasingly reckless Brexit rhetoric.
Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. Despite the fact that the DUP were the only party that backed Brexit, this right-wing minority group is holding not just Northern Ireland but the entire UK to ransom. Neither Arlene Foster nor Theresa May has any mandate to remove Northern Ireland from the EU, to impose a hard border and rip up the Good Friday Agreement. To impose any of these would give grounds to trigger a unity referendum, provided for within the terms of the GFA.
It’s 14 months since the Northern Ireland executive became locked in political paralysis, exacerbated by the Tory-DUP deal to prop up Theresa May’s Government. Meanwhile, Brexit talks continue in Brussels and, while Scotland and Wales are represented at the table, Northern Ireland is not.
In March, Conservative MP and chair of Westminster’s Northern Ireland committee, Andrew Murrison, warned Theresa May that the lack of a functioning executive was a “democratic deficit”, depriving the region of the opportunity to raise Brexit concerns.
Shadow Minister for Northern Ireland Stephen Pound MP, discussing Brexit’s impact on Northern Ireland and Ireland, says as soon as you’ve got “uniformed officers on that border”, the “peace process is finished”
The committee also published a report concluding that the Government has failed to produce evidence that an alternative to a hard border in the province can be avoided. The people on the island of Ireland, my family and friends, deserve better. They want to know what Brexit will mean for their livelihoods and their future and with just 12 months to go, Theresa May has yet to answer some fundamental questions.
If Northern Ireland leaves the single market, a hard border is inevitable. What will become of the cross-border collaboration enabling farmers on both sides to compete with their counterparts elsewhere in the world?
Twenty-five per cent of the region’s raw milk goes south of the border to be processed and 40 per cent of Northern Irish lambs are processed in the Republic. A hard Brexit would impede that flow because of tariffs and customs checks. The burden of paperwork around trace-ability and standards would also be prohibitive.
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