Together we are better safer and stronger
Posted by Geoff Bishop
In London, there is generally an ignorance of politics in Northern Ireland – even among politicians of many parties.
For this reason it was easy for the Dublin government and Sinn Fein to convince the media that, as a result of the advance of Sinn Fein at the Stormont Assembly election in spring this year, Northern Ireland was preparing to leave the United Kingdom and join a united Ireland.
The result of this week’s general election brings such nonsense to an end, and journalists and politicians in London are scrambling to learn what is happening in Northern Ireland.
In contrast to the emphasis that Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU and the increased support for Sinn Fein, there is now an election result which confirms a sizeable increase in the pro-Union vote and the emergence of a pro-Brexit DUP as the largest party across Northern Ireland.
Hopefully, the UUP, which like Sinn Fein and the SDLP, supported EU membership in last year’s referendum, will get the message.
Even in North Down, the outstanding Independent MP Lady Hermon, who is strongly pro-EU, almost lost her seat to a pro-Brexit DUP candidate.
The majority of Northern Ireland voters responded to the “wake-up” call and voted in much greater numbers to not only secure Northern Ireland within the UK, but unexpectedly to give unionism a most influential position in the UK Parliament.
I hope that opportunity will be exercised wisely in the interests of all in Northern Ireland.
Gone are the days, in 1965, when I was first elected an MP.
The UUP was so strong that several members were elected unopposed.
I was chairman of a Young Unionist Council, with 4,000 members across the country. There was one Unionist Party. And we had Labour MPs for Woodvale, Pottinger, Oldpark and Victoria.
The UUP must now consider its future. Does it remain a separate party from the DUP?
Finally recognise that unionist voters are pro-Brexit and reorganise, so that young people are encouraged to become members?
Or does it simply experience a slow political death?
As the electoral system is proportional representation for both local government and Assembly elections, there are still opportunities for the UUP to establish an electoral base upon which to build a great party again.
The DUP has an immediate opportunity to make unionism and Northern Ireland important in London, but it must firstly recognise that the English of today are not the English of 1921.
For example, the English are now a minority in their own capital city of London and the Anglican Church is now a minority faith. Most people in Great Britain are now secular and reject Christianity. This is the new society which a government, relying upon DUP support, will be required to govern.
There are many immediate challenges. Firstly, Brexit. As a former member of the European Youth Campaign and MEP, I naturally observe the Brexit issue with interest.
During my 17 years in Strasbourg I realised that the EEC, which I supported, had been overtaken by the EU, which was not in the best interests of the UK.
It is good that Northern Ireland now has a team of MPs who share the Brexit policies of the Government. The absence of Sinn Fein MPs also increases this Brexit support for the Government.
The DUP must ensure that our agriculture industry gets major financial support after Brexit – after all, the UK will no longer be transferring £20bn per annum to the EU.
It should also seek an arrangement whereby cross-border schemes, previously funded by the EU (with our money), will continue to be funded by HMG.
If Sinn Fein, because of its interests in the next southern Irish election, fails to agree to an Executive at Stormont, then the DUP should ensure that devolved matters, such as moral issues, are introduced by direct rule, which allow for the wishes of Protestant and Roman Catholic people in Northern Ireland, rather than English standards.
But the most important Brexit topic requiring the attention of the DUP is the new relationship with the Republic of Ireland.
Just as the Republic joined the EEC the same day as we did (and for the same reasons), it would make sense that it leaves the EU the same day as Brexit. That would solve any problems about borders and trade.
For reasons of pride, the Republic will find it difficult to accept this reality. Just as this election has emphasised the Britishness of Northern Ireland, so are the people of the Republic increasingly looking towards the UK every day.
They watch Sky TV, they read English newspapers, they join the British Army, they want to be treated as UK citizens in many respects, such as travel into the UK, the right to vote in UK elections and the right to be treated as equals to UK people for employment in the London media.
Although the Republic has its own Foreign Minister and, constitutionally, we recognise it as a sovereign nation, in practice today the UK treats it as if it had a devolved government.
In the context of the EU, if the Republic continues to remain a member, then the problem for its trading relationship with the UK (including Northern Ireland) must be addressed.
This must mean a special status membership of the EU for the Republic after Brexit, and the DUP, in its new, influential role in the Government of the UK, must do all it can to assist the Republic to gain that special status.
It is not in the interests of Northern Ireland to have an impoverished Republic as our neighbour after Brexit.
Just look at what is already happening to its tourist industry, agriculture exports and the economies of the southern border towns as a result of the prospect of Brexit.
It would be much worse in two years, when Brexit becomes a reality.