What now for Northern Ireland?

27 June 2016 - by Quintin Oliver

Quintin Oliver writing in Saturday's Daily Mirror takes a look at how we might interpret the NI results of the EU Referendum.

Charles de Gaulle, the French President in the 60s explained the problem with referendums: ‘The trouble is, the voters answer the wrong question!'

What were the Northern Ireland citizens really saying?

Let me suggest three main messages:

  • We don’t trust politicians, especially those far distant from us;
  • We don’t have much faith in the European institutions - they don’t mean anything to us;
  • We want to ‘take back our country’, meaning economically, socially and culturally - decisions must be made locally.

So, what is to be done?

On the first, our local MLAs must be even more accessible, open and engaging, listening more actively to citizen concerns. They have started that process with the Programme for Government consultation. Long may it take root and become more meaningful. MPs need to explain their roles better. MEPs will lose their jobs. 

Second, we must decide what aspects of the European project we wish to retain - youth exchanges, student opportunities, cross-border collaboration, disease control, food standards for example, are often cited as acceptable aspirations. Which directives and red tape will we scrap, which shall we keep - the Assembly should set up a European Committee immediately to host that open and inclusive debate.

Third, I suggest reviving the British-Irish Council bringing together the governments of the UK and Ireland, alongside the devolved jurisdictions of Scotland, Wales and N. Ireland, with the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey. What better forum for more local, accessible decision-making? What better challenge for those governments to show willing, through new ways of working and a fresh approach to citizen engagement. A lively and energetic business and voluntary sector ‘fringe’ could add value and promote accountability.

Above all, the interests of N. Ireland need confident leadership from the top, not bickering and squabbling between unionism and nationalism. We all say we want a prosperous society delivering well-being and inclusive growth for everyone; we only disagree on the political structures through which to implement these goals. We may not be 'European' for long, but citizens of the world! 

Now we have a golden opportunity to reshuffle the pack and deliver a fresh start, based on those principles of fairness we all cherish.

Let us now use this opening to work together, not apart. To find new ways of solving old problems. Our role is to change the old order, not repeat it in new clothes.

Come on Arlene and Martin, you can do it!

This article was first published in the Daily Mirror on Saturday 25 June 2016.