SDLP need to grab the initiative on post-Brexit debate

Posted By: September 10, 2016

Patrick Murphy. Irish News. Saturday, September 10, 2016

Dear SDLP,

Even allowing for Stormont’s recess, you appear to have made little political capital from the Summer’s main events – Brexit and Jamie Bryson. Indeed, some would suggest that since entering opposition, your profile and political relevance have slipped somewhat.

So, with respect, this column would like to suggest what you might do to revive your ailing fortunes and, at the same time, improve life for all of us. The answer lies in how you handle Brexit.

You are jointly taking a court case with Sinn Féin to challenge the referendum result, which suggests that you are still in denial about it. Without pre-judging the outcome of the hearing, you appear to be adopting a position similar to traditional republicanism, by refusing to recognize the legitimacy of a UK decision.

Unless a judge decides otherwise, you have effectively adopted a position of abstentionism. In fairness, it is a handy place to be, because it requires neither thought nor action. But while waiting on the court’s decision, you might like to ponder what sort of society Theresa May is planning to create for post-Brexit Britain.

Your claim that the government does not know what Brexit means is only half true. The Tories are not clear about future trade and security arrangements with the EU and other countries. But Mrs. May knows what Brexit will mean in terms of economic policy.

By appointing Liam Fox as one of her chief negotiators, she has clearly stated that British sovereignty means moving Britain towards a low regulation, low tax regime for big business. (Fianna Fail and Fine Gael have the same definition about Irish sovereignty, as evidenced by the Apple case.)

The Guardian has reported that as Defence Minister in 2011, Fox set up an organization called Atlantic Bridge, financed in large part by a hedge fund. It formed a partnership with the American Legislative Exchange Council, a lobbying group which would wish to see public services privatized and corporations released from regulation.

Mr. Fox was forced to resign in 2011 following allegations he had given a close friend access to defence meetings and international trips. So why has he been brought back? The answer appears to be that Theresa May wants him to shape a post-Brexit, American-style society, run largely by the private sector, with a freeze on public spending.

For many, voting to leave the EU was an attempt to move away from that style of government from Brussels. Mrs. May appears determined not to move very far.

This is where you come in (assuming that you disagree with Mrs. May’s vision). You can do little to change EU policy, but your three Westminster MPs can fight for a fairer society outside the EU than that planned by Mr. Fox. The first step is to abandon your version of abstentionism. The second is to demand a second referendum – not on EU membership, but on the type of society we want outside the EU.

That would give you a new relevance, particularly since last month’s letter from Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness to Theresa May made no mention of the society and economy which they wanted to see. They failed to recognize the significance of Mr. Fox’s appointment.

You are unlikely to ever have a better chance to turn adversity into opportunity. You could even fill the social and economic policy vacuum in the Good Friday Agreement. Of course, it would mean accepting the referendum result. You might regard such a move as unprincipled. (Good point. Now, try explaining that on the doorstep at the next election.)

However, there are two good reasons for doing so. It would allow you to lead the post-Brexit debate and provide a conceptual framework for a new society here. It is an opportunity to develop the new politics you have promised.

The second reason is that if you do not adopt this policy, Sinn Féin will almost certainly set the agenda. However, there is little indication so far that it fully appreciates Mrs. May’s intentions. Although the party is on your side in court, its desire to retain power in Stormont will push it towards accepting the referendum result and cutting a deal with the DUP.

Your abstentionism will then carry little weight against its power.

You will be more aware than most that it[SinnFein] has abandoned almost everything it once stood for and side-lined you in the process. If it has to, it will do the same again. So where will that leave you in Mrs. May’s new society – and where will it leave the rest of us?