Northern Ireland should push the EU to grant it special associate or even membership status to avoid the “devastating” consequences of Brexit for Irish people, Martin McGuinness has said.
The deputy first minister and Sinn Féin leader told the Guardian that leaders in Belfast and Dublin needed to work together to make the case for special rules to apply to Northern Ireland. The province voted 56:44 in favour of staying in the EU in June’s referendum, but will be forced to pull out when Britain does.
“As things sit at the moment we are going to suffer big time,” McGuinness said. “Theresa May says ‘Brexit means Brexit’, but so far as we are concerned Brexit means disaster for the people of Ireland.”
He said he was encouraged that the Democratic Unionists, with whom his party shares power in Belfast, also agreed that Ireland needed to be treated as a special case by Brussels because of the importance of the potential problems – borders, trade, peace and security – presented by Brexit.
And he added that many unionists were as unhappy as republicans at the outcome of the referendum and the risk posed by the restoration of immigration and customs borders, as well as loss of easy access to EU markets.
“There is a large amount of discontent, including within the unionist community, about how this Tory-led Westminster administration is being so cavalier in disregarding the impact of what they are planning,” he said.
McGuinness warned that unionists could turn against Westminster in the way that Scots have done in recent years because of the feeling that London doesn’t care about them. “I think there are a lot of people here beginning to feel the same, and depending on how this negotiation goes that trend will accelerate over the next couple of years.
“There has to be an island of Ireland solution that we can live with, and it is critical that we have an Irish government fighting our corner, so the big challenge in the next few weeks is whether the government in the north and the south can come to a common position. We need to get our act together about what we want to see come out of these negotiations.”
The prospect of Brexit has generated a wave of anxiety in Northern Ireland and Ireland: that borders may have to be reinstated to police immigration and customs; that trade may be badly affected if Britain withdraws from the European customs union; that economies may tank if sterling weakens further; and that the Troubles may reignite if uncertainty over the hard-won 1998 peace deal in the province persists.
The DUP backed Brexit in the referendum, but McGuinness said it was “an important and welcome development” that the senior DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson had said Northern Ireland was looking for a special deal for the island of Ireland that enables free movement of goods and people on the island, and preserves the institutions created under the Good Friday agreement.
McGuinness added it was yet to be explored whether an outcome could be constructed that allowed Northern Ireland in Europe, or gave it special access to EU markets.
He said: “Fifty-six per cent of the population voted to remain and we could not have achieved that result without a substantial section of the unionist community voting for a future in Europe. The vote was not on sectarian lines, but on how destructive it would be politically, socially and economically.
“May says she is negotiating on behalf of the United Kingdom, but there is absolutely nothing united about a so-called United Kingdom. We don’t agree. We see our future in Europe. Scotland sees its future in Europe.”
McGuinness said he was deeply concerned by indications from the Tory leadership that the plan was to leave the customs union. “Any removal from the customs union effectively means we are cut out of a market of 500 million people, yet half an hour down the road they will be able to trade freely with the EU. It would be a devastating blow.” Moreover, some 37% of Northern Ireland’s exports, worth £3.6bn, go to Ireland.
Britain has said its one stated red line in the talks with the EU will be to prevent the formation of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, and to ensure the maintenance of a common travel area. But it has not set out how this is achievable, and McGuinness is sceptical.
He said: “Whenever the government promise there will be no return to the borders of the past, they don’t make it clear there will be no borders. The borders of the past conjures up the idea of British soldiers, checkpoints, queues of cars a mile long.”
“We don’t want borders of any description – you can now drive from central Belfast to central Dublin in an hour and a half. You won’t be stopped anywhere. You won’t see a red light and you won’t be stopped by a police officer unless you are speeding.”
“One of the main arguments, and it was a big compromise for us in Sinn Féin, was the principle of consent: that there would be no change in the constitutional position of the north without a majority of the north.
“Yet leaving the EU is a massive constitutional change, especially for those that saw dual Irish citizenship, the massive EU investment in the peace process and the wider economic investment.”
The Belfast agreement means all citizens in the north are entitled to an Irish, and therefore an EU, passport. “We were all working on the basis that the maintenance of EU membership was a continuing part of the Good Friday agreement. The fatal decision to hold the referendum was made without any consideration whatsoever on its impact in the island of Ireland.”