UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): We should start by talking about the referendum campaign, your thoughts when David Cameron announced there would be a referendum, and then how you saw the campaign itself playing out in Northern Ireland?
Naomi Long (NL): I suppose this first raised its head in a meaningful way during the Parliament where I was a Westminster MP, between 2010 and 2015. The debate was ongoing as to when and if there would be an in/out referendum on EU membership. I was vocal in saying that I opposed it.
I opposed it for a number of reasons, but particularly because I believe that in those circumstances, the lack of understanding and appreciation of the complexities of our relationship with the EU, and the vulnerability of Northern Ireland in raising the issue of borders and boundaries, was going to be incredibly difficult to manage in a referendum campaign.
I felt that it was not an appropriate basis on which to have a referendum where there was no clear outcome defined by government. There was no proposition that was an alternative to the EU. We were essentially embarking on a journey without having a destination in mind. Aside from a few trite slogans, there was very little to offer the public by way of explanation of how we would achieve what was intended and, indeed, what the impact of that would be.
They decided to go ahead, as is now history, in 2016. It pretty much unfolded as I expected. The loud voices continued to peddle mistruths and misinterpretations around what was happening in Europe.
I think governments over many years, even those that were positively disposed towards Europe, contributed to a culture in the UK that allowed that to take seed. I think that when they did things that were unpopular or difficult, they tended to blame the EU. When decisions were hard to explain or complex around human rights issues, around what to do with foreign national prisoners, and so on, they would blame the EU rather than engaging in a nuanced conversation with the public about why they were making the decisions they were making.
We had fertile ground for misinformation, and the misinformation came. It was not countered well in terms of the Brexit campaign itself. I think, again, what people tried to do, in much the way they tried to with Quebec and the separation referendum in Canada, was to appeal to people’s self-preservation instincts. It was telling people that we couldn’t survive without the EU. Actually I think that, again, isn’t a narrative that British people are particularly well disposed to hearing.
There is a long lag of empire and the Second World War where people believe that we can take on all comers and win the day. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s a very distorted view of the modern world, but it’s not a bad thing in terms of people feeling that they need a bit of pluck and a bit of courage, and they want to do positive things.
The difficulty is if you tell those same people that you can’t do something, it’s almost like a challenge rather than a warning. Instead of it having the impact that people thought it would have, in terms of warning people of what might happen and indeed what has happened, it actually made people who were not in favour of remaining in the EU more defiant. They almost felt like they had a point to prove.
By contrast in Canada, when they realised that was the direction it was going, they instead did the love-in. They went and they said to Quebecers, ‘Well Canada wouldn’t be Canada without you. It wasn’t that you need us, we need you. You need to stay because without you it won’t be the same’.
That argument was never really properly articulated here. We talked about what the EU did for us, but we never articulated what a central role the UK played in the EU in terms of shaping it, forming it, leading it. There was no sense of ownership in the campaign. It was, ‘Do you want to leave this thing that’s over there, that has nothing to do with us, or do you want to be ruled by it?’. When you ask a question in that context, you’re only ever going to get one answer.
Although the referendum was very tight in the end, I think that the late swing of people would’ve been more towards that sense of, ‘Well why can’t we do it ourselves? Why can’t we do it alone?’. So, I think the stage was set for that.
The referendum campaign in Northern Ireland was also incredibly distorted, because many of the messages that were, if you like, palatable to the wider UK audience were incredibly divisive here. That included some of the Remain messages because they were all about the UK, and that’s a contested issue in Northern Ireland. It didn’t get the kind of buy-in we might have hoped for in terms of the wider population.
I did some campaigning around this with the Remain campaign. It was very challenging to get our message across, whereas the message of the Leave campaign resonated very strongly with the independent streak of right-wing unionism here. That was reinforced, I think, by the close relationship between the DUP and the Brexit cohort within the Conservative Party. That voice was amplified in Northern Ireland in a way that was very difficult to counter. Although it was a minority view in Northern Ireland, it was a majority view in the UK, and it was the loudest view, which is sometimes more important than whether it’s right or wrong or how many people support it.
So much airtime was also given to those who were, at best, eurosceptics and, at worse, anti the European Union. People were allowed to peddle mistruths on media platforms in the interests of, supposed, balance. You would go to an expert in the economy and you would ask this expert on the economy, with a string of letters after their name and 30 plus years of experience, ‘What will this do to the UK’s economy?’ They would then give you this very complicated but clear picture that it wouldn’t be a good outcome. Then you would go to Bob in the pub for balance and Bob would tell you what he thought; that everything would be fine. That was what we were fed in terms of balance.
It was just opinions. Provided there was a 50/50 split of opinions promoted, there was no challenge back to say, ‘On what evidence do you say that?’
That allowed, I think, the Remain campaign to perhaps overegg the pudding when it came to the challenge of leaving the EU. We’re seeing now that those challenges are real, they have come to pass, but they were never going to be catastrophic on day one. I think there was a perception that was what was being articulated. It allowed those who were anti-Europe to go on flights of fancy about what the European Union did do, could do, and would do in the future unchallenged and untrammelled by any kind of proportionality.
I think that the communications throughout the campaign created the kind of environment where trying to have a reasoned, rational, discussion around the EU became almost impossible. Trying to articulate the positive impact of the EU not just in terms of the UK, but of our international relationships, of our wider place in the world, just became drowned out by bendy bananas, a European army, and catastrophising what would happen if we left instead of actually articulating the important role that we had.
For example, around things like a European army, the important role that the UK had in consolidating opposition to any kind of single army project was never articulated; the fact that we were playing a role and that it was more likely to happen if we were out than in.
That really frustrated me as somebody who is absolutely a European project supporter. I am pro-EU. I am not saying the EU is perfect. I think the trap was that if you said you were for staying, that you then had to embrace everything about the EU, even the silliness that it involves. I say that as somebody who spent a short time as an MEP. There are things about the EU I would love to see reformed and changed, but it doesn’t change the fact that it is, to me, the place where the UK ought to be.
From a Northern Ireland perspective, I think the consequences of not being in the EU have actually, in many ways, been more stark than anyone anticipated. We warned of it, Northern Ireland politicians spoke about it, but we were an afterthought. We were a PS on a long letter when it came to the Government’s thoughts around the EU. This was about managing Conservative party tensions, it wasn’t about the country and it certainly wasn’t about Northern Ireland, where the Conservative party doesn’t bring home any seats.
The May negotiations and Northern Ireland
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): We have Northern Ireland voting to remain, but the UK as a whole voting to leave. With that initial letter from Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness, do you think that the Northern Ireland Executive could have formed a cross-community, cross-party, approach to how Northern Ireland needed to be dealt with during the exit negotiations? Or was that letter the high water mark of the process, and actually there was never going to be any real common ground established ?
Naomi Long (NL): I think it proved to be the high water mark. Arlene Foster and the DUP were at pains to distance themselves from that letter subsequent to having signed it, which is not unusual in Northern Ireland. There were so many opportunities missed.
If you want to think of the UK as a kind of family of nations, it’s only going to work, like any family, when there is some give and take. When two people in the family say, ‘You’re going somewhere we don’t want to go, and we are resolutely opposed to going’, there comes a point where the other members of the family have to acknowledge and compromise.
What happened was that it wasn’t just that people voted to leave the EU. Suddenly that became, ‘We voted to leave the customs union and the Single Market, we voted to take a very divergent path from the EU’. We’re still having this argument where we can’t have an SPS agreement with the EU because it would mean alignment. People never voted on that. That was never on any ballot paper that we saw, but the UK Government took the approach that, once the UK had voted to leave, leave meant complete severance of our previous relationship.
It wasn’t just that we would take back control of some elements of policy and cooperate and collaborate on others, it was very much, ‘Well we’re going now’. The problem with that all or nothing approach meant that it alienated the majority of people in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where there is already a tension around sovereignty within the UK. It exacerbated an underlying tension in those parts of the country where people were already questioning the value of the United Kingdom in the same way that the United Kingdom had questioned the value of the EU.
By saying that we’re going to ignore Scotland and Northern Ireland, that we’re not going to consider their interests or needs in this discussion, and that even post-referendum we’re not going to consider the fact that a majority in both places said no to this, was to rub salt in a very raw wound, and has actually reinvigorated Scottish nationalism considerably. They were talking about how, at that time, that there wouldn’t be another referendum for some considerable time, and they’re now demanding one.
It reinvigorated Irish nationalism here too, because people then said, ‘Well if this is how the UK Government treats us, why would we stay?’. It transformed conversations in those places and made it challenging, particularly in the Northern Ireland context, for us to find a level of agreement.
If you ask us what we want as an outcome, everyone will say, Brexiteers right through to Remainers, that they want to be able to trade freely with the EU, and want to be able to trade freely with the UK, and all of those other things. That’s a unicorn Brexit. That’s the Brexit where you ‘leave’ but you haven’t left, because you still have the benefits of membership. Where you don’t take the rules, but you get all the perks. That doesn’t exist. There was a level of agreement that we all wanted those things. Where the disagreements come are on what we’re willing to trade to get them.
This is the crucial bit of the jigsaw that I don’t think people understood. People talked about loss of sovereignty, but they didn’t talk about exchange of sovereignty for benefit. They talked about the cost of the EU, but they didn’t talk our investment in the EU for the return on our economy. We ended up with this very binary argument that we were giving to the EU and they were taking from us, and we got nothing in return. If you look at the economy in the 1970s, I think anyone with an ounce of sense can see that is a very flawed narrative.
We have then had that overlain on top of the existing community divisions in Northern Ireland. Nationalism, I have to say, kind of went through its own phase during the referendum campaign. Sinn Féin were not cheerleaders for the EU- they’d been on the opposition side in every referendum in the Republic of Ireland and had argued against membership. However, they saw an opportunity to pitch themselves against the Conservatives and against right-wing conservatism. They took that opportunity.
The SDLP and Alliance have always been ardently pro-EU, whereas the Ulster Unionist Party had been split on the issue. They had been eurosceptic but were in favour of ‘in’ rather than ‘out’. They gave their members, essentially, a free vote. In the DUP, there was probably a mix of individual opinions, but the party predominantly was anti-EU.
You ended up with this kind of odd situation where, when the cleavage came, when the vote was taken, unionists felt they had to say, ‘Well whatever the UK decides, we must accept’. You had nationalists saying, ‘Whatever the UK decides, we don’t care, we should just face south and get on with things with the Irish republic. The UK don’t care about us’.
As a cross-community party, we were saying, ‘Well hold on a minute. What the UK decides does impact on us. It will still impact on us even if there’s a united Ireland, because our relationships in these islands are also critical, as well as our relationship with Europe. We need to resolve this and try to rebuild the bridges’.
We tried, in that initial stage after the referendum, to pitch the idea of Northern Ireland as a bridge between GB and Ireland, and therefore into the EU, and say, ‘Look, if we can get special arrangements to deal with the border challenges that we have and all of the rest of it, we can be in an advantageous position to bridge that gap. We can soften the blow to Scotland, and we can soften the blow more generally by having that bridge into the EU in a more structured way’.
The difficulty with that is that, first of all, there was no real buy-in, initially, from the Conservatives. Theresa May finally became seized of the idea when she came to Northern Ireland and was confronted by businesses and by people, by their absolute horror at the idea of an Irish land border or sea border, by the idea that there would be a hard customs border anywhere, by the impact that would have on business and on communities. The penny only really dropped when she was confronted with that.
A lot of the time Theresa May, when she did visit Northern Ireland, was very cosseted away. She only met the DUP, she only engaged with parties in closed sessions, she didn’t take questions from business people. At one stage, when she came, she did eventually go out and meet communities and businesses, and that day her view changed.
UKICE: When was that?
NL: That was when she really started to push for the backstop in 2018. That was when she moved her position to say, ‘Northern Ireland has unique circumstances which we need to accommodate, and in order to do that we’re willing to be more flexible’. She did explore things like remaining in the customs union, potentially. There was a bit of push and pull about that. It wasn’t the pure Brexit that the Brexiteer fanatics wanted, so it ended up not actually travelling. I think she tried but, potentially, too late.
I think that sensitivity to what was happening in Northern Ireland, and indeed in Scotland, needed to be apparent on day one. Once you publish referendum results by country, you need to acknowledge that two of your four are not overjoyed about this.
You have a 52% majority, which is not exactly overwhelming either. If you were going to do Brexit on a scale of 1 to 100 and you vote 52, that’s a pretty mild form of Brexit, almost a minimalist Brexit, in my view. That’s not Brexit to the extreme, which is where, essentially, we’ve ended up. I think there was a lack of proportionality. There was no saying, ‘The country is deeply divided on this. While, of course, 50 plus 1 is a majority, we do need to be sensitive to the fact that there is a significant minority here that are not happy with this and we need to accommodate them’. I don’t think that ever really happened.
I certainly don’t think that the Government ever really truly acknowledged that most people in Northern Ireland didn’t agree with their policy and didn’t accept it. It went beyond, I think, not agreeing with it. I accepted the reality that Brexit had passed, but I didn’t accept that was the end of the road. I felt that we still had, both, the right and, I felt, the duty in Northern Ireland to fight what was being done to the country, in terms of the democratic views expressed by the people who elected us to try to shape it, change it, and challenge it, because I do think it was a bad decision.
I also think it was a corrupted decision because of the dark money that was invested in it and the improper electoral processes that led to it. It wasn’t a high point for democracy in the UK for me and it didn’t really show our democracy at its best. I felt that people had been almost cheated into voting for something that they didn’t fully understand. As a democrat, I found that really hard to accept.
UKICE: A lot of the focus on Northern Ireland was on the economic implications for NI and the border. I think, before the referendum, the one speech that Theresa May had made for the Remain campaign during the referendum was about the security implications of a Leave vote.
To what extent do you think that those security implications for Northern Ireland were understood by the British Government? Were there conversations with the Northern Ireland Office or other ministers?
NL: I don’t think the security implications, the societal implications, the political implications, were understood. I don’t think, at that time, we had people in power who were interested in listening.
We have had a run of secretaries of state, some of whom have been more interested than others, more informed than others. We’ve had some who have openly admitted they didn’t know anything about Northern Ireland when they came here and some who, if they were honest, would admit they knew less when they left. It’s the pain that we suffer with every new secretary of state; we must train them up and explain what’s going on, and just about the time they start to get it, they go.
We were fortunate with Julian Smith. I think he did get what was happening in Northern Ireland, but he was only here for a very short time. I think that, to be fair, Karen Bradley saw the dangers of what was being proposed and the risks, but I’m not sure that necessarily held a huge amount of sway in terms of wider government policy, because that was very much being driven by what the Conservative Party wanted as opposed to what was good for the country. It was difficult.
In terms of the security issue, it’s also a difficult one to talk about, because no politician wants to sound like they’re making decisions under duress or under threat. You have to kind of divorce what you do from the security implications because otherwise, in Northern Ireland, you would end up in a situation where it would be threat after threat.
I’ve personally experienced people deliberately threatening me to try to influence my decision making and position. You have to be resistant to that but you can’t be blind, as a government, to the consequences of your actions.
I was never one who believed that this would reinvigorate the Troubles, or that we would suddenly end up back where we were in the 1970s. I think that was fantasy because I never really believed that we would end up with the kind of border and security infrastructure that was there then.
I always believed, though I didn’t think it was right, that we would end up with any checks being done around the Irish Sea. That wasn’t because of security, that was pragmatic and practical. If you’ve got seven ways in and out of Northern Ireland that are clearly defined, and at clear points, or you have a 300 mile border that winds its way through fields and roads and all the rest of it, I would be doing checks in the seven clearly defined points of entry.
I warned unionists of this at the time, before the vote. It was obvious to me, looking at it just from a logical perspective, that you wouldn’t put a hard border at the border. You would put your border at the ports and airports. They just couldn’t see it, they refused to see it. I think that there were some in unionism who wanted to leave the EU to differentiate themselves from the Irish Republic. They felt we were becoming too much the same, we were too closely aligned. They wanted a hard border, in a way. They didn’t want the consequences of it, but they wanted a hard border to say, ‘This is where the UK starts and we’re part of it’.
They pursued that believing, I think in a fundamentally flawed way, that the government in the UK would give a toss about that. Their focus was always going to be, ‘What’s practical, what’s doable, what’s cheap?’. It was always going to be ports and airports if it was going to happen anywhere, and that’s what happened.
The counter to that is that, of course, those who oppose that, the loyalist paramilitaries, aren’t seen as a state threat. They are paramilitaries dealt with at the Northern Ireland level by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) . MI5 and others aren’t involved in that space, whereas dissident republicanism is seen as a threat against the state, so it’s dealt with by the security services and so on.
So, anything that involved dissident republicans probably was slightly more elevated, because they were perceived to be a threat to GB, whereas loyalists were seen to be a threat only within Northern Ireland, that we would deal with ourselves. Therefore, to the Government, annoying loyalists probably didn’t seem as important, but it can be as destructive and disruptive in Northern Ireland as annoying republicans and particularly dissidents. I think there’s a slightly flawed perception of risk even when they do the security threat.
Less so than the security threat, it was the political threat that caused me concern. If unionism was fragile enough, and it clearly was, to believe that leaving the EU to differentiate ourselves from the Irish Republic was necessary, then it was obvious that any solution that didn’t harden the Irish border, but actually created new barriers or frictions in the Irish Sea, was going to send them apoplectic.
The Government just did not seem to see that risk and seemed only to see, for obvious reasons, the concerns about the hard border on the island, because that was where international focus was. That was where a lot of the focus of the Irish Government was, because it would have ramifications for them and business and all the rest of it.
People kind of focused on the Irish border because it was the live concern, and forgot that any friction in the Irish Sea would not be welcomed by unionists. It’s something that we had raised throughout, but it wasn’t really heard, because I don’t think people anticipated unionism being the cause of a new terrorist campaign in Northern Ireland.
UKICE: One of the criticisms some of our interviewees have made of Michel Barnier is that he didn’t really understand unionist concerns about those checks in the Irish Sea. Obviously, Ireland was a continuing member state, so he was particularly interested in Irish concerns.
NL: I’m not critical of Michel Barnier in two senses. First of all, unionism didn’t really engage with the EU very well. They had a voice, but they didn’t use it. When they were invited to go to joint meetings with three MEPs from Northern Ireland, one republican, one unionist, and myself, Diane Dodds wouldn’t attend those meetings. You can’t complain about not being heard if you’re offered a seat at the table and won’t go. That’s how unionism has operated for a long time because, traditionally, if they don’t turn up then people will chase them. That wasn’t going to happen in this case.
I also can’t blame Michel Barnier because his priority was the EU. I think that there’s a flawed understanding of what he was trying to do. He wasn’t there to solve the UK’s problems – that wasn’t his issue, it wasn’t his concern, it wasn’t his job. That was their job. His job was to protect the Single Market. He was there to defend the EU, so he was going to listen to the Irish who were saying, ‘Hold on, if we can’t continue with our agri-food businesses across borders, that’s going to have an impact on us’.
He also was really concerned about the Good Friday Agreement. He was concerned about peace. He was concerned about potential instability. He saw the risks of a hard border anywhere, and he saw that really clearly. Every time he spoke to the UK government, or we spoke to the UK government, they were unwilling to do anything that would prevent those border checks or those boundary checks happening somewhere.
The least bad option seemed to be the Irish Sea, on the basis that there were already SPS checks that were happening there. Goods already had to flow through a degree of customs to get to Northern Ireland.
In some ways, he possibly didn’t see the significance, in terms of the unionist psyche, of adding to those checks. But unionists were in denial that those checks would have to happen. They believed the kind of ‘Boris unicorn Brexit’ could be achieved, that we could trade in membership of the EU at no loss.
We still get this conversation of, ‘How are goods from GB coming to Northern Ireland a threat to the Single Market? We were able to do it three years ago, now we can’t’. I’m saying, ‘Yes, but we were in the EU and now we’re not. The rules that stop us continuing are rules that we put in place to stop Turkey and other places being able to import into the EU without checks, these are rules we created and now we’re on the outside. Deal with them’.
There’s still a lack of realism, acknowledgement, that when you’re outside the EU, that is a change. That is a legal change, and it needs to be dealt with. Michel Barnier got that from day one. I think he got very frustrated, at times, because he felt they were there to do business.
The EU is what it is. At times it is a juggernaut, and trying to turn it round is not easy, but they were business-like. They turned up at meetings prepared. The UK turned up with a blank page, they didn’t know what they wanted out of the negotiation. It’s very hard, I think, to really engage meaningfully with partners in a negotiation who don’t know what they want, but know what they don’t want and are in denial about the reality of their situation.
The reason I say that is because I’ve negotiated with those people in the DUP over things like restoration of the Assembly. They come with an empty page. They’re not capable of producing a proposal. They critique other people’s proposals and propositions, and point the flaws and say what doesn’t work, but they don’t give alternatives or solutions. They sit back and expect others to do the heavy lifting.
I think that the Europeans got incredibly frustrated with that process and the rhetoric that didn’t match the reality. I detected, particularly toward the end of the negotiations in 2019 when I was in the European Parliament, the French, in particular, getting really, really, fed up with the UK and with the nonsense politics. I had a lot of sympathy because it was annoying me too.
I worked with my French colleagues in Renew Europe to say, ‘Look, you’re close to Emmanuel Macron, he is influential when it comes to extensions and other things. The UK are trying to bait the EU into being the enemy here because it plays well to a UK market. Just don’t rise to it. Don’t respond in kind, don’t allow yourselves to become what they’re trying to create. Give them the extra time, give them enough rope, don’t make it difficult. Don’t create ultimatums and deadlines, because if you do that you will be the bad guy and they will get away with this’.
There came a point in the UK where there needed to be some realism about the damage that was being done. Eventually the penny dropped. I think Maros Sefcovic is much better at that. I don’t know if that is to do with the culture and history and politics for him, but he is really good at not rising to the bait and not snapping back or reacting to what the UK does. He listens, he states his position, but he remains flexible and open. I think, actually, we’re starting to see the lack of alternative propositions becoming more and more exposed, because he keeps offering alternative propositions and there’s no formal response.
I found Michel Barnier incredibly professional in what he did. He was incredibly patient. I think it’s hard to criticise him because he set out to negotiate a deal that protected the EU and that’s what he did.
He protected Northern Ireland more, I think, than people give credit for, because if you look at our situation now, despite all of the political hot air around the protocol, the opportunities that lie within it are enormous. There are frictions that need to be resolved, and can be resolved, but actually, in terms of people’s day-to-day lives, it is not having the impact that others are claiming, for political reasons, that it is. I think that that’s being significantly over-egged.
UKICE: Going back to Theresa May’s deal, after talking to Theresa May, I think you said that you thought that was the best deal we were likely to get. Did you expect it to pass? Did you think the DUP would ultimately come round to thinking, ‘Actually this is not a bad offer for us’?
NL: No, because that kind of rational behaviour just wasn’t characteristic of the group of MPs that they had, who were all hard line brexiteers. They were drunk on the favours that they had received from the Conservatives, on the attention that was lavished on them by the European Research Group. They, frankly, lost the run of themselves and forgot that all power is temporary.
I think, at times, they treated Theresa May with utter contempt. It was embarrassing, frankly, the way they treated the Prime Minister. She was at their beck and call. It was also partly her own fault, in that she allowed them to control her like that rather than face another election and actually try to refresh her mandate.
I think that they became so puffed up with their own importance, that they kind of wallowed in the power of being able to say no to things and send them crashing.
As I say, even if the DUP in Northern Ireland had been more in favour of some kind of compromise- a la Arlene’s letter- the MPs were not those people. There are structural reasons why, in that the DUP, historically, exiled some of their more difficult people to Westminster because it was not as high profile, while keeping their more cooperative, collaborative, people in the Assembly. People who were willing to hold their nose and work with Sinn Féin, as they put it, stayed in the Assembly, and others left.
The ones who were in Westminster at that time weren’t compromisers, they were all or nothing Brexiteers. I wasn’t surprised they shot it down. I was disappointed.
I’m Remain to the core. I’m a rejoiner, not just a Remainer. I think our best future lies in very close cooperation with the EU. I’ve seen nothing that has happened because of Brexit that disabuses me of that belief. I see no evidence of benefit from Brexit. I see only challenge and difficulty and friction. In terms of Northern Ireland, I see incredible instability.
I am as fundamentalist around some of these issues as anybody else, but I was pragmatic enough to see Theresa May’s deal as the best chance we had of getting some kind of flexible arrangement that wouldn’t be an end of the road scenario but that would put a safety net in place. Unlike the protocol, which is a really heavy duty and cumbersome way of doing business, the backstop was there to say, ‘Certain basic principles are the bottom line for us, we’ll agree that and then we’ll build on it in the negotiations’. It was much better to start off with an agreement and build on it, than to try to hammer out the detail in a 500/600-page document at the end.
To me, it was the wrong way to go about it. I thought we should’ve bagged that good will, essentially, in the backstop and then sought, on the basis of that as an Executive, to influence what the detail would look like.
We have never really captured the ability to speak as one on Brexit, even where we agree. In agriculture, for example, or on the economy, we have ministers who supported Brexit and are coming to the Executive complaining about lack of immigration for key workers and the impact it’s having on hospitality and on the economy and on agriculture. You’re kind of sitting wanting to scream, ‘We told you so’.
My whole life, for the last four or five years, has just felt like one big, ‘I told you so’. I know that that’s not how we should be, and I have to bite back on it and say, ‘Well how do we fix it?’, because we are where we are. It’s so frustrating to hear people coming to you as though this is some kind of epiphany, some kind of a revelation, that European people were not willing to stay here and be second class citizens or to have questions asked about their immigration status.
So they went home and now they’re not willing to come back on a three-month visa to drive our HGV lorries- there’s a shock. Why would you give up your life in Poland to come here for three months? It doesn’t make sense, but there has always been the presumption that life in the UK is so sunny that people from everywhere would want to be here. It fuels the whole idea that we’re overrun with migrants and all the rest of it. It’s a fallacy. We need immigration because we have an ageing population, particularly in Northern Ireland, and if we don’t import skills and labour we won’t have either
There’s just this false narrative that has developed based on, I think, a few coastal towns that have particular problems. Suddenly you have people in parts of the country where they’ve never heard a foreign language spoken or seen a foreign person take up residence in their village, feeling that the country is full, and we can’t have any more immigration. It’s a narrative that doesn’t tie in with the reality, which is that there’s plenty of space, and there’s plenty of work.
In Northern Ireland we’re close to full employment, so we’re essentially having to take people out of one job to get them into another. That causes inflation. Try to have that conversation with people in Northern Ireland and they think you’re mad, but that’s the truth of where we’re at.
The effect of Brexit on Northern Ireland
UK in a Changing Europe (UKICE): What effect do you think that the last five years of Brexit, as well as the pandemic, has had on political alignment within Northern Ireland?
Alliance, in a sense, is doing quite well, with an MP back in Westminster, and you did very well in the European elections. We’re also looking forward to Northern Ireland Assembly elections next year, unless the Executive collapses before that, and then the consent vote on the protocol in 2024. What has all this done to Northern Ireland’s politics?
Naomi Long (NL): I think even the consent vote itself is a contentious issue, because it will be fought along unionist-nationalist lines, and that’s just the reality of everything in Northern Ireland. Brexit became unionist versus nationalist once the vote was taken, and this will be as well.
I suppose the best way to explain it is this. The culture of interdependency that was promoted with Europe, the idea that barriers and borders were less and less important, was really in our interests as a society here where barriers and borders are contentious. The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland feeling like a continuum into the UK, Scotland, England, and Wales- with the Common Travel Area, it felt pretty much like it was a contiguous block- helped with stability in Northern Ireland.
The more differentials there are between the UK and Ireland, the more differentials there are between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the more friction there is between GB and Northern Ireland, the more tension that there is in communities.
It’s stark how unstable things have become over the protocol. It is a largely politically driven instability. This isn’t people actually rioting in the streets over the protocol; this is politicians hyping up the argument and then, as soon as day follows night, you will get some people who will take to the streets but not in the sustained ways that we have seen over other much more visceral debates. I think that’s because, actually, the impact on people’s day-to-day lives is minimal.
Where I think there is a genuine challenge for us is that I think, first of all, unionism is no longer a majority in Northern Ireland. The centre, whether that’s Alliance, the Greens, and others who kind of hold that middle ground. is kind of a swing vote. Brexit has definitely reinvigorated Irish nationalism. The calls for an early referendum on Northern Ireland’s future are much more loudly articulated.
More importantly, it’s no longer seen as a ‘Sinn Féin only’ drum that’s being beaten. The Irish Government have a constitutional unit looking at Ireland’s future. A lot of parties are engaged, we’re engaged, in those discussions with other parties, as well as the discussions about the future of the UK. Actually I think, whatever happens to Northern Ireland, we’ll continue to have an interest in both, just because of our history.
I think that it has placed Irish unity, and the constitutional question, back front and centre of politics. That isn’t good for stability in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland flourished most when the constitutional question was relegated and we were dealing with health, education, and all of those other things. Once you put the constitutional question back to the fore, you immediately start to divide people.
Alliance has done well in terms of the Brexit issues, as an alternative to that for people who are frustrated by binary politics, but that becomes much more difficult as the elections become more and more focused on the question of what our position on the constitutional question is. At the moment, we haven’t taken a position, and that is a choice that we have made not to do that. It will become more and more important, over time, if they continue down this path.
o that’s a discussion that we’re engaged with, with other parties. It shouldn’t be an important one for the Assembly, because we don’t make those decisions, and any decision on a referendum will be made by individuals, not parties, so I always say to people, ‘It doesn’t matter what Alliance thinks, what you vote for will matter in the same way as it did for Brexit’.
I think that’s, maybe, why you’re seeing more engagement by the Irish Government – Brexit has taught us that, actually, having a referendum about an idea is not a great idea. If you’re going to have a referendum it must be about a plan. If there’s going to be a referendum on Irish unity, it’s going to have to involve, ‘What does that look like for the health service, for education, how do we pay for it?’, all those questions.
I think most people now, in Northern Ireland, recognise that the idea of in or out in a referendum for the UK is as mad as an in or out referendum for the EU. I think most people recognise that what we need is substance. You have to be coming to people with a proposition to say, ‘This is what life would look like and this is the timeframe in which it would happen, and this is the involvement the UK government would continue to have, this is how we would transition, this is how it would be done’. You couldn’t, I don’t think, cover your eyes and hope for the best. I think people have seen with Brexit that that isn’t how it works.
I think the other thing I would just reflect on is the impact it’s had on politics more generally, in terms of the discourse. I think Brexit has been one of the most destructive things for political discourse in terms of the nuance and intelligence and thoughtfulness of the debate that we can have in politics with the public.
We treat the public, now, like idiots. I hate that, because I don’t think the public are stupid. Everything is full of slogans and empty phrases. ‘Oven-ready Brexit’, and it turns out to be a turkey. It’s that whole idea that you can sell the public anything if you do it with enough enthusiasm, I think it’s fundamentally dangerous to democracy because we need an involved, informed, public to make good decisions.
One of the reasons I opposed a Brexit referendum was the idea that somebody who is juggling a family, a full-time job, a life, was ever going to sit down and study the European Union in the kind of detail to be able to make those decisions. That’s not about being elitist, that’s about being a realist. As a politician, I had to inform myself constantly about the complexities of Europe. It isn’t just something you know.
I think that there’s a tendency, now, for politicians to kind of dismiss experts, to disregard facts, and prefer feel-good and opinions and pizazz. I just think, fundamentally, that does harm to the debate and the discourse, because politics is complicated. I would love it to be nothing but slogans, where you make promises, you tell people you’re going to do things, and it just happens by magic. If only it was like that. Actually, politics and being a minister is hard grind, it’s about making tough choices.
Sometimes it’s about sitting down with people and saying, ‘I know you want me to do this. This is the consequence and the cost, and it would mean we maybe can’t do this. Do you still want me to do this?’. It’s the conversations that we have with each other every day where we know that we could, in theory, do anything we liked, but we know that if we’re going to survive as families, as communities, as a society, that it’s not all about what we want. We have to negotiate our way through with the people around us.
I think we’ve lost that art of communicating complicated ideas with the public in a way that isn’t patronising but is honest. To me, what’s patronising is telling people that you can have your cake and eat it, and expecting them to believe it. I think we have fallen into that trap with Brexit, of saying to people, ‘Yes, our side of the street will always be sunny, everything will be fine’, and believing that, by saying it, it will be.
I just think that will, ultimately, cause a lot of harm, and that harm will mainly be felt by the people who don’t see it for what it is, which is fluff. People who think they can believe their politicians and trust them, those are the people who will be hurt the most and they’re the people who are always affected by our decisions. They’re the most vulnerable, they’re the people who are already on the edge. I just think it feels exploitative, the way our political discourse has moved.
I would love for us to be back at a time when people like Theresa May, who were dismissed as wishy-washy at times, who had that kind of thoughtful discussion where there was reason and content and depth. If we’re going to provide a better future for people, we’ve got to be able to do that. I think that is the biggest damage that Brexit has done to politics in general in the UK- it has gutted it of all depth and consequence. I know that sounds an awful thing, an awfully depressive place to finish a question.
But it has had its own impact in Northern Ireland too because, increasingly, I see some really vacuous stuff being trotted out as lines by people, that can be very inflammatory in a situation as difficult as ours. It’s this belief that you can do what you want without consequence and you never need to compromise with anyone. We’re seeing a push back against the Good Friday Agreement because people don’t want to compromise.
I think we just need to reconnect and say, ‘Look, compromise is what we do every day. It is how we get along, it’s how we do trade, it’s how we do businesses, it’s how we survive as a society. It’s not a bad thing. Being able to compromise with a bit of integrity is a key skill, not something to be ashamed about’. I think there’s a challenge that, if we can’t find ways of communicating the complexity of politics anymore, if we can’t find language to do that, then it’s going to be difficult to get good decision-making, because everybody wants a simple solution.
I want a simple solution to these things. I want it always to be sunny, the grass to be green, and everything to be well in the world. Everybody aspires to that. But my job, as a politician, is to deliver it. That is a lot harder than just saying it. I think we owe people the respect of telling them that. And I think we’ve lost that.