Brexit: Bad for UK, worse for N. Ireland – former EU representative

Jane Morrice, former member of the Assembly of Northern Ireland, during an interview with EURACTIV. [Michael Ball/Euractiv]

In an interview with EURACTIV.com, Jane Morrice, a former member of the Women’s Coalition in Northern Ireland, reflects on the role of women in supporting post-conflict reconciliation and the situation in the region after Brexit.

Morrice, born in Belfast in 1954, is a member of the Economic and Social Committee, a consultative body of the EU. She was previously head of the European Commission office in Belfast and took part in the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement.

She served as deputy speaker of the first Northern Ireland Assembly after ‘the Troubles’, with the Women’s Coalition, in a short but intense political career. She spoke to EURACTIV in her blue coastal townhouse in Bangor, Northern Ireland, full of memories of her time at the Assembly.

Morrice campaigned extensively against Brexit in the streets of Bangor and is concerned that the UK’s decision to leave the EU will jeopardise peace in the region.

“It is bad for the United Kingdom but it is much worse for Northern Ireland,” she said.

Women in charge

Morrice was one of the two elected members of the Assembly of Northern Ireland for the Women’s Coalition in 1998, and she praised the role of female politicians, especially in conflict resolution.

“We were really breaking new ground. We were talking to anyone. Our party was equality, human rights and inclusion. And we really insisted that everyone talked to everyone,” Morrice explained about the role of the coalition during the peace process.

The animosity between the parties was still tangible despite the result of the peace talks. “You had to recognise yourself as Unionists or Nationalist or other. And we were other,” Morrice said, explaining that this helped the Women’s Coalition to be perceived as a mediator.

“All of us had to remember at all times that it was far better that it was happening in this chamber rather than on the streets,” she explained.

Morrice praised the role the women play in the reconciliation process. “Women have a different experience, the carers, the mothers… the peacemakers in the family, I guess,” she said.

“We created the political party in Northern Ireland way back then, exactly for that reason, because we thought more women in politics would change the political culture”.

EU is a driving force in supporting peace in Northern Ireland

Peter used to be a policeman during ‘the Troubles’, while Tom served 13 years in the loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a paramilitary group. Now, both help former combatants reintegrate into Northern Irish society. A project like this would have been almost impossible without the EU’s support. 

EU’s role in the peace process

Morrice does not hide her appreciation of Europe. She was once a representative of the Commission in Northern Ireland and was very much involved in drafting the PEACE programme, a set of funds the EU put in place to help the reconciliation of the communities on the island during the peace process and in the post-conflict period.

“The European Union is in my DNA,” she confessed.

She lived half of her life through the armed conflict between Catholic Republicans and mostly protestant Unionists that claimed more than 3,000 lives in the area. “I really saw the European Union and the fact that we joined in 1973 as our way out”.

As the UK prepares to leave the bloc on 29 March, the former deputy speaker does not hide her worries.

“The European Union was instrumental in helping us achieve what we did in the Good Friday Agreement and has been with us the whole time in the European PEACE programme,” she said.

“The Americans were very good at that, very supportive, very political. Whereas the European PEACE programme was about grassroots, was about getting the communities together, and for me, that was much much more sustainable,” Morrice insisted.

But for the former member of the Assembly, it is not only about the funds but about the neutral space the EU provided for the UK and the Republic of Ireland, as they were both members of the bloc during the peace talks.

“The European Union provided the space for Irish and British to meet, whether it be Brussels or elsewhere and again, to get to know each other better, learn from each other… now that is being removed and it is more than unfortunate. It’s painful. I can’t even find the words to describe how bad it is,” she said.

“I am devastated by what has happened. I think it is not just bad, it is terrible.”

Brexit blames

Jane Morrice is very vocal when it comes who is responsible for the UK’s departure. First, she pointed at British politicians who “blamed Brussels for everything bad but took the prize for everything good that came out of the EU.”

Second, she looked at the British media outlets for “creating an anti-European feeling.” But she also had something to say for the EU.

“I do believe that they have not taken communication and information about the European Union seriously enough,” Morrice regretted, “they should have been shouting from the rooftops, challenging the things that are said.”

The European institutions “must be much more conscious of the need to communicate and to engage with citizens and tell the good stories of the European Union which are right there,” she argued.

“I think the European Commission should put communication much higher up on its agenda and not talk about engaging with citizens but actually engage with citizens.”

Brexit impact in Northern Ireland: When peace is at stake

Time is running out as the UK is set to leave the EU on 29 March, and an orderly withdrawal is not yet secured. EURACTIV has travelled to Northern Ireland where Brexit is more than a political or economic issue – it is a challenge for peace. 

A return to violence?

The possibility of reestablishing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has brought back ghosts from the past, as people in the area fear a return to violence.

“The polarisation of society into British and Irish as a result of Brexit could do harm to all that has been done until now. Already we are seeing animosity, even at the political level,” Morrice admitted.

The former politician explained that, in her opinion, the EU has taken the issue seriously due to their understanding “of the social impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland, the potential for creating further division.”

But political representatives in London, she said, do not appreciate the psychological, social and cultural impact of a border on the island. “We are working hard on trying to get togetherness, a shared society but we are not there yet,” she explained.

“Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union and that is something that isn’t properly being taken into consideration,” Morrice pointed out.

However, she discarded a possible return to an armed conflict.

“I would like to say that none of us believe we could go back to those days and simply saying that is providing hope”.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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