TRADES UNION desk – Is Brexit best for Northern Ireland?

 John O’Farrell argues that in supporting Brexit, Northern Ireland’s Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers MP is not acting in the best interests of Northern Ireland.

It surely is a sign of increasing decrepitude when one realises that one has met most of the Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland since the post was created in 1972. There have been 18 holders of that cabinet post, and they have included some of the most fascinating characters in Westminster politics in recent decades.

Indeed, contrary to the ‘Siberia’ nickname of the posting, the Hillsborough Castle perch was often an apprenticeship for promotion to one of the great offices of the UK state. 

What 17 of those London interlopers had in common was that they took seriously their job description of being Secretary of State for Northern Ireland – they acted as advocates for the region. This is about more than semantics. The creation of the role in 1972 also broke the political link between the Conservative Party and the Ulster Unionists, ensuring that no MP from Northern Ireland would ever sit around a cabinet table in Downing Street on the same basis as MPs from Scotland or Wales or even Chipping Barnett, the residence of the Prime Minister and the seat held by Theresa Villiers. 

Recent revelations from declassified cabinet papers reveal the brave stances taken by Thatcher’s Northern Ireland ministers. Tom King felt obliged to report what unionists really felt about the Anglo-Irish Agreement and both Atkins and Pym reported how her style and policies were alienating moderate nationalism. There seems to be no such compunction for Theresa Villiers.

Questions have been raised by her behaviour and attitude during almost two years of negotiations which led to the failure of the Stormont House Agreement and the untested compromises which comprise the Fresh Start Agreement. From conversations with participants and interlocutors, it is quite clear that Villiers does not listen. She comes to the table with proposals written by HM Treasury, and backed up with threats of sanctions and fines from HM Treasury.  

Considering this stone-faced opposition from nameless ideologues in the granite fortress of HM Treasury, it is remarkable that any concessions were won at all by local negotiators to alleviate cuts such as those in welfare which would have been considerably more damaging in Strabane rather than Stratford. 

Similarly, her attitude towards dealing with the past betrays a worrying lack of empathy towards arguments from differing perspectives. This has been noted by negotiators and observers from both of the main ‘traditions’, alienating both in a manner which exceeds the way in which, for example, unionists despised Mowlam, nationalists loathed Mandelson and everybody agreed that Paul Murphy was a lovely bloke. 

Now, in what could be sign of hubris, Villiers has put herself forward as the voice of Brexit around the cabinet table, along with a couple of other mid-level ministers. While her membership of anti-European cult The Bruges Group has been known, her visibility on this matter should be of particular concern to anybody who has bought her spurious arguments for welfare reform or ‘rebalancing the economy’ through redundancies and privatisations and gifting large companies with a huge unearned tax cut.  

There is a clear ideological line and reasoning in her thinking. There is no shortage of incredibly optimistic economists happy to echo her assertions about thousands of jobs that always follow tax cuts for the rich. But advocating Brexit is a monstrous leap. If the Secretary of State really thinks that the region she works ‘for’ would prosper outside the European Single Market, let her back it up with the evidence of any other economist, or by a promise from HM Treasury that the GB taxpayer will compensate Northern Ireland for all the cash we will lose: CAP for the farmers (€714million, from 2014-2020); ESF for skills (€205million); ERDF for infrastructure (€308million), Interreg for links to Scotland and other EU regions (€283million) and Peace IV (€270million) for repairing the human and social damage of the Troubles, including support for ex-prisoners, victims and other necessary projects that local politicians avoid like the plague.  

This is before we add intangible but frightening costs such as making it harder to trade with the world’s richest market, the one which starts at the border posts at Newry, Auchnacloy, Belleek, Lifford and Muff.  

By opposing our continued membership of the EU, and by conspiring to remove Northern Ireland from a relationship widely supported by all communities, Theresa Villiers is negating more than the preposition in her job title.

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