Fifty-six per cent of people in the north of Ireland voted to remain in the EU. Martin McGuinness, the deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland, explains why Brexit is an affront to democracy and explores its consequences
The island of Ireland is facing the biggest constitutional crisis since partition as a result of the Brexit referendum.
The British Government appears determined to usurp the democratic will of the people here by dragging the north of Ireland out of the European Union against our will.
That is an affront to democracy.
Fifty-six per cent of the people in the north of Ireland – unionist, nationalist and republicans – voted to remain in the EU. That mandate should be respected not dismissed.
However, the new British Prime Minister – who I met in recent days – seems determined to ignore that mandate.
And that should be of no surprise to anyone because this toxic debate was never about the desire of the people. It wasn’t even about Brussels bureaucrats or British sovereignty. It was a power play within the Tory party which unleashed and fed upon xenophobia and racism.
The dynamics which led to that schism within the Tory party are still there. They will continue to influence the Tory leadership in the time ahead and we are the collateral damage.
Because there is nothing good in Brexit for Ireland. There are no opportunities. There are no silver linings. Brexit is an economic, political and social catastrophe.
Due to our legacy of conflict and peripheral geography, the north of Ireland is particularly dependent on EU support.
Between 2014 and 2020, we were set to receive 3.5 billion euros in direct European funding. A sizeable portion of that will be at risk if we are forced out of Europe. Such funds will, of course, not be available at all in the years following 2020 and I don’t think that anyone seriously believes that the British Government will reimburse these losses.
Certainly when I met with Mrs May she offered no guarantees about recompensing the North of Ireland for this loss.
The impact of losing billions from our economy will be a devastating blow in a region which is still emerging from a long and bitter conflict. We still suffer some of the highest levels of deprivation seen anywhere on these islands. We are dealing with the legacy of generations of neglect and under-investment from successive British governments, all of which has been compounded by the austerity agenda of the Tories.
In a society emerging from conflict, we need to be able to demonstrate that politics can deliver for people, that it can bring about positive change and consolidate the peace process. Our ability to do that has been crippled by the Tories and Brexit threatens to make a bad situation incalculably worse.
As well as these direct European funds, we are already losing an unquantifiable amount of private investment as foreign direct investors turn their attention to regions which can guarantee access to the European market.
The European Union has also been central to the peace agreements which have underpinned the incredible progress we have made in the past 20 years.
The role of Europe is written into the Good Friday Agreement. Brexit would directly challenge the integrity of that internationally-binding treaty and represent a major setback for the political process in the North.
It would undermine the all-Ireland bodies and co-operation created by the peace process and harden partition.
It would have huge consequences for human rights legislation which, again, is specifically referenced in the Good Friday and subsequent agreements.
The most tangible aspect of that would be the return of any kind of border on the island of Ireland.
An EU frontier, hard or soft, stretching from Dundalk to Derry is something no one in Ireland wants.
And it’s all very well for Theresa May to say she doesn’t want a return to the borders of the past. But when she was Home Secretary, she was absolutely clear that Brexit would inevitably lead to renewed border checks of some form.
I fear that is exactly what will happen.
And the simple fact is that Theresa May hasn’t ruled a new border out because she can’t rule it out. It’s not within her gift to make that decision because this will be a matter for negotiation with the other EU member states. It will be one of the many prices of Brexit.
And that is the great folly of this entire issue. Brexit may well mean Brexit but nobody – Theresa May included – has any idea of what it will actually look like. It is abundantly clear from the engagements I have had with the highest levels of the Westminster government that they are scrambling in the dark. They have no demonstrable plan to plot a way through this crisis because they didn’t expect this to actually happen.
I personally warned David Cameron nine months ago that he was sleepwalking us all out of the European Union. He clearly didn’t think then that he would lose the referendum but that is precisely what transpired. The British Government recklessly dragged us all into the unknown and they did so for entirely self-serving reasons. It was a foolish attempt to placate UKIP racists and the loony-right within the Conservative Party.
Unfortunately, for us, we will be dealing with the consequences of that decision for generations.
From our perspective, what is needed now is an island-wide approach to dealing with the EU. That is why Sinn Féin called on the Taoiseach to establish an all-Ireland forum to discuss the impact of the referendum. That now needs to go ahead.
The Taoiseach and the Irish government need to play their part in ensuring that the democratic rights of all Irish citizens are protected, regardless of where they live on the island.
Despite the huge challenges Brexit presents, it has also led to a focus on the potential for building a new Ireland.
The people of the north voted to remain in the European Union and we have to explore all options to give effect to that mandate.
A debate has already begun across the country about what a new Ireland within the EU, would look like.
That debate needs to be as wide-ranging as possible, inclusive of the views of a wide range of civic and political opinion from right across Ireland.
The example from Scotland has shown that such a debate can be carried out in a mature, reasonable and sensible manner.
The Tories and the British Government have demonstrated, yet again, that they care little for the needs, entitlements and democratic wishes of the people in the north of Ireland.
I believe the people here see their future as part of Europe. As part of an outward-looking, positive and inclusive new Ireland.
The agenda being pursued by the Tories is contrary to all of that and it is time we had a genuine, mature and rational debate about how we make that happen. regions which can guarantee access to the European market.