BBC Radio Ulster
The Stephen Nolan Show
Stephen Nolan invites a panel to discuss last Saturday’s Beyond Brexit conference held at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast.
Stephen: ‘A newly confident and assertive Nationalism’ – that’s how the Beyond Brexit conference at the Waterfront Hall on Saturday has been described. Sixteen hundred people attended the event which included figures from Irish politics, civil society, civic society and academia. But controversially to some, no Unionist politicians. If you went, tell us what you made of it. Patricia Mac Bride was one of the chairs of the event. Morning to you, Patricia.
Patricia: Good Morning, Stephen.
Stephen: Good Morning. The TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice) leader, Jim Allister, with us today. Morning to you, Jim.
Jim: Good Morning.
Stephen: Good Morning. And the Newsletter‘s Political Editor, Sam McBride. Good Morning, Sam!
Sam: Good Morning, Stephen.
Stephen: Sam, let’s start with you: What’s wrong with Nationalism having a debate in the Waterfront Hall last Saturday? What’s wrong with it?
Well, there’s nothing wrong with it whatsoever and actually, in terms of the wider argument about trying to get people interested in politics as opposed to taking to the streets if they’re angry or something of that nature, it’s pretty incredible to be able to get something in the region of one and a half thousand people, if I’ve got the figure correct for the number of people who were there, that’s a very large gathering. It’s bigger than you’d expect at a party conference, it’s bigger than you’d expect at a typical political rally or protest – so it’s a pretty significant feat. I think the only really significant argument against what was happening on last Saturday and in terms of how it was billed was that it was being presented as something that was not a Nationalist event – it was being presented as something that was really for anybody who was opposed to Brexit, well, obviously anybody could go along – when you look at the list of people who were speaking almost all of them were people who were coming from a Nationalist perspective – there were a handful of people like Clare Bailey, the leader of the Green Party (in Northern Ireland), but it was really was overwhelmingly Nationalist event and not something which was bringing in people to hear Unionists who oppose Brexit or whatever so that is the point where I think there is very legitimate criticism of that but as a Nationalist event I think it was something which seems to have been very significant and something which Unionist ought to be looking at and thinking: What is going on here and how are we responding to this from our perspective?
Stephen: Could it have been more inclusive, Patricia?
Well, I think it was a hugely successful event. I think that there was some very, very positive contributions there from the likes of Professor Jim Dornan, from Clare Bailey, from Paul Gosling – you know, there were a lot of people there who made very, very positive contributions to the event. There will be many more events and all people, you know, the organisers were very clear on the day that it was an open event – people could register, people could attend – I know that there were Presbyterian ministers who attended and there have been a number of people that I have seen on social media since the event on Saturday who come from a Unionist background who were there who felt that the event was successful, that it was positive, and it gave them a context for Brexit and the impact that it’s having on the rights of all of the citizens of this part of Ireland and of the island as whole. But you know, sometimes families need to talk to each other as well as to talk to their neighbours and I don’t see that there’s anything wrong with that. I think from the point of view of being able to showcase on Saturday the common purpose and the common narrative that is coming out of Nationalism and Republicanism when you see Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party), etc all speaking as one.
Stephen: Why weren’t Unionists not invited, Patricia?
Patricia: As I said, sometimes families need to talk to themselves as well as to talk to their neighbours. And this is only one of a number of events…
Stephen: …Are Unionists not part of the family?
Patricia: This, well – they’re part of the wider community and I think that this is part of a series of events and those conversations need to continue. And that was something that came out. Were you there, Stephen? Because I know you’ve been very interested in the event. So if you yourself were there you would have known that – the organisers were very clear that this was one of a number of conversations – it’s by no means an exclusive conversation – and that’s something that came out very clearly in the panel that I was chairing and (inaudible)…
Stephen: …But, do you know why Unionists were not invited?
Patricia: Because the invitations were sent to people who are opposed to Brexit and the impact that it is having on the rights of our citizens as a result of that…(crosstalk)
Stephen: …And you don’t think any Unionists are opposed to Brexit?
Patricia: …and both of the Unionist parties, their party line is that they’re supporting the government on Brexit. So I think what we need to do now is to look at, you know, how we can take the discussion forward, how we ensure that people’s rights are protected. I mean, if you look at the news today you have representatives of manufacturing in Ireland and a number of other business and industry organisations going to Westminster because they’re hugely concerned that less than sixty days from Brexit we don’t know what’s going to happen so we need to have clarity on that…
Stephen: …Do you know who paid for this, Patricia?
Patricia: Yes! And as I said Stephen, you’re so very interested in the event and if you were there you would have been very clear on who paid for it…
Stephen: …You’re very interested in me being interested in the event – who paid for it?
Patricia: I know the BBC, I know the BBC does a lot of repeats at the moment you know, and there must be budget cuts because you covered this on Friday, but it was very clear, as you would have been aware…
Stephen: …My goodness! You’re touchy this morning about this – aren’t you?
Patricia: …the chair of the event, the chair of the event said on Saturday, very clearly, that the event was funded entirely by voluntary donations. There were programmes for the event that were on sale on the day. There is a, there’s a Go Fund Me page that has been set up to pay for the rental of the Waterfront Hall so it’s entirely…
Stephen: …Was there a major donor?
Patricia: There are a number of donors from what I understand…
Stephen: …Was there a significant donor?
Patricia: …from what I saw there people were putting their hands in their pockets on the day – there was significant donations being made by individuals on the day – so there’s no mystery around this.
Stephen: Jim Allister, what’s wrong with Nationalism having a conversation with itself? What’s wrong with this?
Jim: Well, if Republicanism, you know, if Republicanism wants to have a jamboree in Belfast they’re entitled to do that and it’s quite clear that that’s what it was – talking to themselves in the echo chamber about their aspirations but, of course, ignoring – which I’m quite happy to be ignored in this – to ignore those that, if they would ever have to succeed, they’d have to persuade.
But this conference was about two things: It was about defeating Brexit, something I believe in and it was about dismantling the thing I believe in the most – the union with Great Britain – so it was no place for any Unionist nor was it ever intended to be and, you know, if they want to go talk to themselves – go talk to themselves.
Stephen: Let’s have a listen to what the Sinn Féin president, Mary Lou McDonald, said at the event – it was just after the event, wasn’t it? – at the weekend.
Audio: Clip of Mary Lou McDonald speaking is played.
Stephen: That was actually in the event – calling for a border poll, Patricia. How realistic is that?
Patricia: Well, I think that you heard there all of the main speakers talking about the legitimacy of a border poll, of a unity referendum, in this island. I mean this is something that no one should be surprised about. It is part of the Good Friday Agreement. The reunification of Ireland, in the context, in the context of the Principle of Consent, is built into the Good Friday Agreement. And if we want to talk about referendums the Good Friday Agreement was passed by a majority of seventy-two percent so, you know, anybody who objects to that conversation happening really doesn’t have a leg to stand on. It’s part of the Good Friday Agreement, discussing the potential of the reunification of Ireland should not be a shock and it should not be anything that causes anyone, you know, to see it as illegitimate in any way. It’s a legitimate political aim – as every one of the contributors said on the day.
Stephen: Jim Allister?
Jim: Yes, but don’t dress it up as something it wasn’t. It was quite clear, and indeed I think Patricia Mac Bride has just confirmed it, it was about those who want to dismantle the United Kingdom, those who want to break up the UK, those who want to take Northern Ireland out of its current destiny and annex it into the Republic of Ireland – but it’s their meeting and talking to themselves – and they’re entitled to that. And indeed Patricia Mac Bride’s right about one thing:
The whole purpose and long-term goal of the Belfast Agreement is, indeed, Irish unity –why I’ve always opposed it – and that’s confirmed by the fact that the only referendum you could ever have under the Belfast Agreement is one which effectively asks you: Are you yet ready to join the Irish Republic? So I’m not surprised that on the back of that, Republicans, and I think clearly it was essentially a Sinn Féin event, would want to gather and compare their notes and talk to themselves. They’re entitled to do that but don’t pretend that it’s something that it wasn’t.
Patricia: Well, I would think, I would think that Minister (for Education and Skills and Fine Gael TD) Joe McHugh and Dara Calleary (TD), the Deputy Leader of Fianna Fáil and Colum Eastwood (MLA), the leader of the SDLP, would all disagree with you that it was a Sinn Féin event in the first instance. And in respect of, in respect of Brexit and in the respect of breaking up the United Kingdom well, I mean, Republicans and Nationalists don’t really need to do anything in that respect because the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) and the Tory government are doing just fine on their own because they don’t have a plan, they don’t know what they want, they’re trying to go back to the EU to renegotiate something that they agreed well over a year ago but they still don’t know they’re asking. So in terms of breaking up the union – you know, look to Theresa May instead of looking to the Waterfront Hall.
Jim: Oh, I have no doubts that Theresa May has many mistakes over Brexit – she has rolled over constantly. She’s now been brought up short by the UK Parliament which has rejected her deal and primarily rejected the backstop. And of course it’s interesting that the people gathering in the Waterfront Hall were the cheerleaders for the backstop. Why? Because they see it as the very thing it is – that which will annex Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom and make us a protectorate of the EU and a waiting room for a united Ireland – that’s exactly what the backstop is. And I’m not surprised that those in the Waterfront Hall know that and I’m just happy that the Prime Minister has been brought up short on that and I hope this week that Parliament will take a stand and say there will be no deal if there’s a backstop and that’s the stand they need to take because that’s the only thing that gives them any leverage with Brussels.
Stephen: Sam McBride: The front page of the Daily Telegraph this morning and indeed others have been speculating on a Plan B, another Plan B, which would be to have the backstop as a temporary measure, in other words, a time limited backstop could be a solution to the current impasse. I don’t understand how you can have a time limited insurance policy. Do you?
Sam: Well, it’s certainly not an insurance policy in the way that the dictionary would say that that should be defined. I think that what we’re seeing here is potentially some quite clever politics from the DUP, at least in the short term, because while this has been a shambolic process from the British side in terms of how the Brexit negotiations have been handled, last week was probably the worst week that there has been for the Irish side and there were all sorts of splits, both in terms of what the Irish government was saying itself, which is really self-contradictory, and there were splits opening up with the European Commission where there had been a very united front up until that point and we had the Polish government coming out and saying that really they do think that it’s something that we should look at in terms of putting a time limit on the backstop.
So yes, it is not an insurance policy if it has a time limit but I think the argument from the DUP side, and to a certain extent the logic of some of what the Irish government itself has said last week, is that if there’s a situation whereby, they are saying, even in the worst case Brexit scenario, from their point of view, even in a no-deal Brexit scenario, you still don’t have a hard border – they say they will not do it, they won’t allow it to happen – will then be a very obvious argument that comes back from the DUP: Well, hang on a minute, if even in the worst case scenario there’s not going to be a hard border why on Earth do we need this insurance policy against the hard border? So I think everyone is, to a certain extent, getting trapped by some of the logic of their argument, or the lack of logic of their argument- and there is the potential by the DUP, I suppose, trying to show itself to be reasonable here, showing that they’re willing to compromise, they’re willing to negotiate, that then puts the ball back in the court of the European Union albeit at a very late stage of this process and potentially if there is a split there that’s helps to open that up a bit, widen it out, and really put a bit of pressure on the other side where up until now really all of the pressure has been self-inflicted from the British government and the House of Commons.
Stephen: In other words, Patricia Mac Bride, why do we need this backstop if it is incredibly unlikely that the Irish government is going to put checkpoints at the border? They aren’t going to build them – are they?
Patricia: Well, there’s a few points in that that need to be addressed. The first is the issue of the backstop itself and it being an insurance policy. It’s very much a ‘glass half-full scenario’ – it is not what most people, that I have talked to, most people within business in the farming community in this part of Ireland wants – they see it as the best compromise that can be reached at the moment. The idea of Sam saying that ‘the DUP showing themselves willing to compromise on the issue makes it more likely that the EU will re-open negotiations’ is frankly nonsense. And the reason that it’s nonsense is because neither the DUP nor the Tory government has any notion of what it is that they want. So how can you go back into negotiations with the EU27…
Stephen: …well, the DUP would deny that, wouldn’t they? Oops, I think we’ve lost Patricia…
Patricia: …and the third issue, and the third issue on that is that, you know, looking at how we move forward from here. There is no benefit to the EU, there’s no need for the EU to go back into negotiations. There’s a very clear programme, there’s a very clear agreement that was negotiated in November 2017 – there’s nothing to renegotiate. There is nothing new being brought to the table. So in those circumstances, you know, when you hear a lone wolf in the Polish government coming out with a statement like: Put in a time limited back stop – that was very, very quickly quashed.
Stephen: Okay. Listen, thank you very much indeed. Morning to you all. (ends)