BY JOE LEARY
SPECIAL TO THE BIR
For most Americans, the British vote to leave the European Union is not a daily concern. Or even a concern at all. But the vote by British citizens to leave Europe is requiring complex new agreements between the leaders of both sides that are proving to be very difficult and may be impossible to fulfill. If the balloting were held today, there is little doubt that most British would vote to stay with Europe.
With respect to Northern Ireland, a poll taken last month showed that 69 percent of its residents would now vote to remain in the EU. In the original Brexit vote, that number was 56 percent.
As to the process itself, little has been set in stone to date while much has been changed on matters previously agreed to. And the main negotiators, Michel Barnier of France and David Davis of Britain, are being regularly attacked by those who oppose their stances.
The British Government is in constant turmoil trying to decide key issues without having to hold a new election. The “Leavers” and the “Remainers,” as they are called, are fiercely defending their positions: Should Britain stay in a sort of halfway customs agreement or should it completely separate and go its own way.
The problem of the status of border between Northern Ireland and Ireland at this point seems to have no solution. Will it be a hard border, with guard towers and passport control, manned by police and soldiers? Or will it be soft border, with little control between the two parts of the island? Barnier and Davis each walked parts of the border last month – separately.
These are only two of the issues that threaten to oust the government of Prime Minister Theresa May, which is constantly under fire.
There will be a much-anticipated meeting on June 28 in Brussels at which Theresa May has promised to give full details of the break-up agreement from the British perspective. This meeting was initially scheduled for March but no one was prepared for it.
In the meantime, the final dates for separation are getting closer and closer. As of June 1, there will be 302 days until the process officially begins. Since agreements are seen as unlikely to be concluded by that time, the EU countries have already set a 21-month transition period between March 2019, when Britain is scheduled to leave, and the end of 2020.
It seems that the positions of Ireland and the provinces in the North have not been taken seriously in all of this. In the North, the government is in complete shambles with Unionists seeing conspiracies behind every door and lashing out at anyone who disagrees with them. And with no legislature by which to give voice to their opinions, the principal political parties are getting more feisty every week at their press conferences.
Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, and Simon Coveney, the foreign minister, have both received fire when they spoke up to protect the republic’s interest. Specifically, they took heat from an old Paisleyite, MP Sammy Wilson, a very effective Unionist spokesman, for interfering in matters in the North. He called them “Brit Bashers and Interferers.”
The Unionist position in the North is not a comfortable one at this point. Population trends suggest that Catholics will outnumber members of all other religious denominations within the next two years. That development will be reflected first in the control of the town councils and in the Assembly at Stormont – if it ever recovers. For Unionists, this will be the ultimate change.
The 1998 Peace Agreement states that if in the opinion of the secretary of state the citizens of Northern Ireland would approve of a United Ireland, then he or she must call for a vote on the matter. Theresa May has confided to a cabinet member that she is “not confident of a certain Unionist victory if we held a vote now.”
A friend of mine from Belfast, a faithful Unionist, was in Boston last month. She said she was very troubled about the atmosphere in Northern Ireland and worried about the collapse of the government there, and about Brexit. She sees the threat of trouble as real and fears that an incident or misspoken words might initiate violence once again. As a Unionist, she is very concerned about what a United Ireland would be like and how life for people like her will change.
Let us hope that good sense will prevail, and that whatever happens with the Brexit process will be pain free for all.