Northern Ireland 7th July 2017

NI Open Government Network Blog – Who speaks for us?

by Connor McLean

Written by Colm Burns, NI Open Government Network Chair

When it comes to Brexit, who’s speaking for us? The short answer is “no one”, because our political parties have chosen to abdicate this responsibility.

The DUP and Sinn Féin are clear on one thing: they have diametrically opposing positions when it comes to Brexit. Alliance, SDLP and UUP have varying positions too, but they will not be in the Executive office, even if devolution is restored. So, I ask again: Who is speaking for us?

At a time when there are more questions than answers and a seemingly never-ending talks process, now partially suspended for the summer, it’s time to ask what else can we do? It’s time for citizens and civic society to speak-up for ourselves.

We’re a diverse group, made up of people from the extreme right to the extreme left. We are the young and the old, and everything in between. Elections, referendums and polls are used to gauge our opinions; lobbyists, interest groups and trade unions all represent their members interests. But what do the people of Northern Ireland really want from Brexit? Some believe a good deal is possible; some think that the UK will never actually leave the EU; and others argue that no deal is better than a bad deal and are prepared to walk away from the negotiations.

The recent UK election failed to produce the ‘strong and stable’ government that the Conservative Party were hoping for; and we may be heading for a slightly ‘softer’ Brexit than some would like. But the stuttering process of withdrawal from the EU is now underway and we’re no clearer about what Brexit will actually look like, never mind what it will mean. In Northern Ireland, voters chose to strengthen the position of the DUP and Sinn Féin with an almost clean sweep of seats at Westminster. Whist Sinn Féin have refused to take their seats, the DUP have become ‘kingmakers’ in parliament.

The Scottish Government and Welsh Government are charging ahead, challenging the UK government on both the withdrawal process and the exit plan. But Northern Ireland are without an Assembly, without an Executive and without a unified negotiating strategy to help achieve an outcome that’s in our best interest. Do they even know what this is? Who’s influencing their thinking? Have they got a big picture vision?

By the time they get their act together enough to restore the institutions, the negotiations are likely to be at an advanced stage. The UK is set to be out of the EU by 29 March 2019, but who knows when government at Stormont will return?

Following the UK Open Government Network letter to UK party leaders, I wrote to NI political party leaders, on behalf of the Northern Ireland Open Government Network and asked them to commit to the principles of open government throughout the process of the UK leaving the EU, and during future negotiations. They could do this by:

  • Providing maximum transparency about the Brexit negotiations.
  • Publishing the register of ministerial meetings on a weekly basis with adequate information to ensure that who is meeting with ministers is transparent.
  • Establishing a new Northern Ireland Assembly Committee to scrutinise the impacts of Brexit on Northern Ireland.

Although I still believe that these calls are important, I also feel that we as civil society need to assert our views.

So, what can we do?

Many organisations are already doing a lot. Some have taken their case to Brussels; the Irish Government held an all-island Civic Dialogue on Brexit; NICVA published a statement on behalf of Voluntary and Community Sector organisations; and at its biannual conference NICITUC passed a number of motions calling on the Government to protect workers’ rights and free movement across the border.

Understandably many organisations are working hard to ensure their voice is heard. But what I haven’t seen so far is a collective movement. Brexit is complex and there may be no single agreed solution, but there are some steps we can take as civil society. For a start we can agree that Brexit negotiations should be transparent and that our representatives should be accountable in their negotiations with the UK Government. If there is no Executive then the Northern Ireland Office must agree to represent citizens based on openness criteria. They must be:

  1. Open in terms of their priorities: open in terms of what they want the final outcome of Brexit to be.
  2. Transparent in terms of open Ministerial Diaries, publishing of minutes, reports and research in a timely manner.
  3. Accountable to citizens about how they are representing all the people of Northern Ireland.

We need to be better informed. I am impressed by the Northern Ireland Assembly’s Research and Information Service’s briefing paper ‘Brexit and Northern Ireland: A Reading List’. Maybe civil society should create its own resource, an online repository for research and papers relating to Brexit that have relevance to Northern Ireland which can be easily uploaded by subject matter.

We need to offer a space for organisations to highlight their work on Brexit and help inform citizens on what is happening.

Areas of focus should include:

  • Consumer Rights
  • Farming and Fishing
  • Environment
  • Health
  • Human Rights
  • Immigration
  • Security
  • Trade

Maybe, just maybe, we need a ‘Grand Coalition’: a coordinated voice and a common basis for a unified campaign. This Grand Coalition and campaign for the citizen’s voice in the Brexit process would need to be a multi-stakeholder platform made up of Civil Society Organisations and Individuals that are collectively advocating and campaigning for an open, transparent and accountable Brexit process.

This is our opportunity to change the narrative of Brexit and make it about the needs of the citizens.

As Michel Barnier, Chief Negotiator outlined the EU position:

“Our objective is to agree on the main principles of the key challenges for the UK’s withdrawal as soon as possible. This includes citizens’ rights, the single financial settlement, and the question of the borders, in particular in Ireland.”

Who is speaking for us?