In a previous article, I made the bold assertion that “Nationalism has nothing that Unionism wants”. What I should have said was “Northern Nationalism has nothing that Unionism wants, and Nationalism in general has nothing that Unionism wants… yet”. While Northern Nationalism may still not have much to attract Unionism, after 30th March next year the Republic will have something that unionists may quickly find themselves jealous of.
While their colleagues in Stormont and Westminster get seemingly endless airtime, Northern Ireland’s three MEPs have been quietly getting on with the job in Brussels and Strasbourg. Outside the political mechanics of the elections themselves, the only occasion any NI MEP made the front page was when Paisley heckled the Pope. But this lack of press coverage does not reflect a lack of importance; the European Parliament is a powerful body, and one in which individual members enjoy more influence than any backbencher in either Westminster or Leinster House.
On current plans, the three MEPs will vacate their seats on March 29th 2019 along with the rest of the UK’s delegation. And with them will go one of NI’s strongest tools for protecting its economic interests. Whether it is manufacturing exporters in Ballymena, content producers in Bangor, or dairy farmers in Fermanagh, the EU’s regulations, as drafted in the European Parliament by MEPs, are the framework of the modern economy.
And Brexit will not change this one bit.
As the British Government struggles to reconcile its red lines with the cold realities of a hard Brexit, virtually every economic lobby group from the CBI to the TUC is campaigning for the UK to remain as closely aligned to EU law as possible. On top of that, the Irish Government has secured a commitment that there will be “full regulatory alignment” between North and South, which effectively means between East and West also. The only plausible alternative to a cliff-edge Brexit demands that the UK as a whole continues to follow EU regulations, but without any representatives in the parliament where these regulations are drafted.
Norway’s so-called “fax democracy” is sometimes overstated. Norway has to transcribe into national law all EU regulations in the areas covered by the EEA. And yes, it has more influence on the drafting process than sometimes admitted to, as it meets regularly at governmental level with EU members in order to defend its interests. But there is no question that its voice carries less weight due to its lack of representation in the increasingly powerful European Parliament. And so it will be with the UK. It is big enough and rich enough that its concerns will never be completely ignored. But it will be Downing St making the representation, not local politicians. NI will find its voice to be very small when compared to that of London or the South East.
But not silent. It is unthinkable that Sinn Féin’s remaining MEPs would fail to stand up for the interests of their party’s electorate north of the border. Northern Nationalism will therefore have a direct line to the corridors of power via the local SF advice centre, something that political Unionism will find difficult if not impossible to replicate. Small businesses and farmers from the unionist community will find themselves either asking their local MP to ask the relevant minister to make representation on their behalf at the next bilateral summit, or holding their noses and contacting their local Sinn Féin representative.
It will be a long time before ordinary unionists fully trust Sinn Féin. But what if there were some friendly MEPs who were less objectionable to unionist sensibilities, and whose members sat with more influential groups than the relatively small European United Left? The other parties in the Republic have a golden opportunity, even a moral imperative, to take on the responsibility of representing the economic interests of Northern unionists in the EP. Without expectation of any quid pro quo, without any implied consequences for the constitutional status. Just because it’s the solemn duty of a public representative to represent the public.
Would that be something that unionists might want?