Paul McNamee: Old foes show a new path

In the challenges coming – and, yes, I’m talking about Brexit – Ireland will be key

After three years of standstill, Northern Ireland could have a parliament again. The British and Irish governments reached agreement on a draft deal late last week.

The rocky road towards multi-party buy-in was being negotiated as we went to print. It being Northern Ireland, this will, inevitably, not be straightforward. However, as the DUP are no longer kingmakers in Westminster, and Sinn Fein are feeling a vote squeeze, these two biggest parties may be more inclined than not to serve their people again.

You might, rightly, ask why this is significant for the rest of the UK. They’re over there, they keep mostly to themselves these days, and there are big challenges coming this year beyond the island
of Ireland.

The reality is that in the challenges coming – and, yes, I’m talking about Brexit – Ireland will be key.

In a time of uncertain futures such green shoots are vital

Northern Ireland in particular will be crucial. Having the Stormont Assembly sit will make the difficult talks over trade and tariffs more straightforward.

One of the stumbling blocks over Stormont sitting was the Irish Language Act. One side wanted it, the other didn’t.

In a bid to find common ground, the London and Dublin teams came up with a big idea to get everybody inside the tent. They have called it, in rather North Korean fashion, the Office Of Identity and Cultural Expression.

This is a canny move and allows for both sides to feel included in the debate about future identity. Identity shadows everything in Northern Ireland, still. The way you pronounce the letter ‘H’, for example, is enough for conclusions to be reached about which side you are on, therefore what your history is and what your family may stand for. This is immediately reductive and also viciously complex. Try growing up in it!

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It’s also worth noting that ‘cultural expression’ is not about ballet or art exhibitions. It’s a whole other deep, labyrinthine cavern; the charts are thick and written in a runic code and the torch is not burning too brightly.

All that being as it is, if Northern Ireland can reach an accommodation and find a way to work in 2020, then there is hope for the year ahead.

Obviously, opposition to Brexit remains. On the flipside, there is a noisy, juvenile triumphalist rump in Westminster over the Brexit victory. That’s not going to be much use when the hard yards of negotiation shoulder in. In fact, given his success, Julian Smith, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, should be given a prominent role in the EU talks.

Success in Northern Ireland suggests that, despite it all, positive outcomes can be found. And in a time of uncertain futures such green shoots are vital.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue  

Image: Son of Groucho