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Why smaller pro-European parties still matter in politics

VOLT - a new pan-European political party. Photograph: VOLT. - Credit: Archant

During elections the electoral system tends to mean smaller parties get sidelined – but ANDREW TALBOT argues those like the VOLT party still have an important role to play.

Until 2016 and the disastrous Brexit referendum result, I took two things completely for granted – peace in Ireland and my identity as a citizen of Europe. 

I was always a quiet European. I believe we all have multiple layers of identity. And here are a few of my layers:  Yorkshireman, Northerner, English, British (that’s what it says on my passport), Irish and of course European. 

Even after Brexit, I will continue to see myself as European. I’m sure there are millions of people across the United Kingdom who feel the same way. 

I moved to Ireland with my family in 2002, just four years after the Good Friday Agreement was signed. We live in Northern Ireland.  Many people in my town prefer to call it ‘the north of Ireland’ – making the point that, even a hundred years after partition, they still do not accept the legitimacy of Northern Ireland as a separate entity. 

We live in Newry, a few miles north of the border with the Republic of Ireland. My three kids are all children of the Good Friday Agreement. Without the Good Friday Agreement, I probably would never have moved my family to Ireland at all. 

During the Troubles (1969-1998) over 3600 people lost their lives. Many more were traumatised. It’s hard enough to raise a family in a peaceful country – harder still if there is civil unrest going on around you.  

On the afternoon of Friday 10th April 1998, I had my 5 month old baby daughter on my knee and I was watching the TV news live – when Senator George Mitchell convened the Plenary session of the peace negotiations and announced that they had reached agreement. It still brings a tear to my eye just to write those words. The Good Friday Agreement brought an end to almost 30 years of conflict. To many of us, it was a political miracle. 

In reality, the Good Friday Agreement marked the beginning of a very long journey of real peace-building in Northern Ireland which still continues to this day. The peace process has been getting deeper and stronger with every passing year.

 A whole generation of children, including my own, have grown to adulthood with no memory of the Troubles. Northern Ireland has been a brilliant place to raise my family – it’s a place of caring communities, large and noisy families, beautiful scenery, lively music and great ‘craic’.  

Under the Good Friday Agreement, if you are born in Northern Ireland, you can choose whether to identify as Irish or British. Both identities are respected and accepted. 

The fact that both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland were members of the European Union made the Good Friday peace settlement possible – as no physical borders were required.

If you are a unionist and you see yourself as British, you can feel secure in the knowledge that you are living in the United Kingdom and there is no border between Northern Ireland and the island of Britain. 

If you are an Irish nationalist and you see yourself as Irish, you can also feel secure because you are living in the European Union and there is no physical border at all between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. 

Brexit has driven a coach and horses through all this. The question of the Irish border and the wider question of Irish re-unification are back with us again. Without Brexit these issues would probably have remained dormant for a generation. 

If the UK leaves the single market and the customs union, there will be a border. Unfortunately there is no agreement about where that border might go. If it goes between Northern Ireland and the Republic, Irish nationalists will not accept it. If it goes down the Irish Sea, unionists will not accept it. There is no agreed solution – and in a divided society with a long history of conflict, that is a worry. Sadly the peace process in Ireland can no longer be taken for granted. 

During the Brexit negotiations, the European Union has demonstrated that it cares about protecting the Good Friday Agreement and preserving the peace process. This is perhaps unsurprising given that the European Union is itself the most successful peace-building project in history. The European Union brought to an end centuries of conflict between the nation states of Europe. 

But for me, the European Union also represents something much more than an alternative to conflict between nations. It represents the best hope for the future of our European civilisation – a civilisation based on the rule of law; equality before the law; respect for human rights; liberal democracy, the building of a strong and sustainable economy and a just and equitable society. 

Our European ideal needs to be nurtured and cherished. The shrill voices of petty nationalism and populism need to be challenged.

Warmer, wiser and more progressive voices need to prevail – all over Europe, but especially in Britain and Ireland.

As a political party, Volt is different. To begin with, Volt is not standing a single candidate in the UK General Election.

Individual nations are unlikely to be effective in dealing with pressing global issues like climate change, the power of multinational corporations and the ethical management of migration. These issues require action at a european level – and, through the application of european values, persuasion and influence, action at a global level.

Volt is also a truly European movement – with thousands of members all over Europe, sharing a common belief in progressive politics and the vital importance of the European project. I’ve never been active in politics before – but Brexit and the frightening rise of rampant populism and anti-immigrant sentiment across Europe has persuaded me that it is time to get involved.

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