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8 June 2016updated 07 Sep 2021 10:44am

The open road ahead

Three public figures reflect on what the June referendum means to them.

By New Statesman

Brexit and the Irish question

By Mary McAleese

I am one of the half-million or so Irish currently living in the United Kingdom. When I took up residence some months ago I immediately registered to vote, and foremost in my mind was the June referendum on UK membership of the European Union. The outcome of that referendum matters greatly to Ireland, for few other EU member states are linked as intimately and in so many complex ways as we are to the United Kingdom.
On her historic state visit to Ireland in 2011, Queen Elizabeth remarked on “the ties between our people, the shared values, and the economic, business and cultural links that make us so much more than just neighbours, that make us firm friends and equal partners”. The reference to firm friends and equal partners is telling, because, as she diplomatically yet pointedly observed: “Of course, the relationship has not always been straightforward; nor has the record over the centuries been entirely benign.”

Today, the political relationships, solidarity and friendships that have grown between us since we joined the European Union on the same day in 1973 have proved pivotal in building the peace in Northern Ireland and the good-neighbourliness between the United Kingdom and Ireland.
The once fraught constitutional ­conflict concerning Northern Ireland is now governed by the terms of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Travel the road between Dublin and Belfast today and although one transits from a euro to a sterling zone, and from Ireland to the United Kingdom, there are no border controls, no visible customs barriers, and thankfully no security posts – just an open road both ways.
When Brexit advocates tell me that if the United Kingdom leaves the EU, the open road will remain open, I know they cannot guarantee that. Under Brexit, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland would become the sole land border and a crucial frontier post between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

In addition to the half-million Irish-born people living in Great Britain, there are 300,000 British-born people living in Ireland. The Treaty of Rome guarantees their freedom of movement. No one can say for certain what rules would apply to the movement of peoples between our two islands after a Brexit.

Bilateral trade between Ireland and the UK is worth over €1bn every single week. Thirty per cent of imports into Ireland come from the UK. We are the biggest single purchasers of British food and soft drinks and the second-largest purchasers of British fashion and footwear. The vast bulk of our energy requirements is purchased from the UK.

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It is simply not possible to predict what model or models of trade relationships would emerge after a Brexit, so when the Brexiters tell me that all those jobs and contracts are perfectly safe, I know it is a prediction they are not in a position to make.
Is the European Union perfect? Not at all. Is it better than anything previously devised to secure peace, partnership and prosperity? It most assuredly is. Has it structures ­ordered to its own reform and development? Yes, it has. It has 28 guiding hands, among them the powerful and influential hand of the United Kingdom.

The first half of the 20th century in Europe was littered with the bodies of the millions who died because of the pull of militant politics. The second half was redeemed by the political imagination that grew the idea of a Europe of nations working with one another and not against one another. We are still in the opening chapters of the greatest adventure in collaborative democracy in world history. We have absorbed 28 member states in a relatively short period of time, each very distinctive, each determined to lose none of its essence and identity around the Union table, but each prepared to exercise (not compromise) its sovereignty in a way that prepares a decent future for all of Europe’s children.

The UK is an important pillar of that future. It has strong views on Europe now and on what it could become. It has an experienced and persuasive voice, powerful enough to make a visible impact on the shape and trajectory of the Union in the century ahead. The Brexit alternative is for the UK to sit alone on the sidelines, in a capricious world, trying to construct a riotous host of essential new trade and political relationships while every one of its neighbours moves on – in that same capricious world, but within the established framework of the EU, thrashing out the issues that allow us to follow through on the visionary purpose of securing peace and prosperity through partnership.

Fundamentally, Brexiters are asking the voters to take a monumental gamble. They have failed to persuade me. I will be voting Remain to ensure the continuation of the contemporary, successful relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom.

Mary McAleese was president of Ireland from 1997 to 2011

This is not an elite conspiracy

By Doreen Lawrence

In the debate over our membership of the European Union, some talk of economics – will we be better off out or in? – some of security and safety, our ability to fight terrorism or police our streets. For others the key issue is immigration. But one topic that is raised again and again by those on the Leave side is our loss of sovereignty to Brussels. They claim that we allow others to make our laws, that we are ruled from abroad and that British people are less free as a result. This is the heart of the so-called emotional argument for striking out on our own.

This argument obsesses the political elite, but for ordinary people what does it mean? For me, co-operation with our partners on the European continent and the restriction of the power of our government is a positive, not a negative. Unrestrained power is a dangerous thing, and we have a system that is already at risk of putting a huge amount of authority in the hands of the state.

In the House of Lords, we have seen this first hand as the current government has ­attempted to use its small Commons majority to ride roughshod over ordinary people and their rights. Labour peers have been the last line of defence, protecting families from cuts to tax credits, forcing a climbdown on plans to limit trade union rights and making sure this country fulfils our responsibility to refugee children in Europe. Ministers may not like it, but we are an essential check to a system that too often allows governments to force through destructive changes without considering the human impact of their decisions.

My experience as a peer has taught me to be sceptical when politicians complain that they do not always get their way. I have little sympathy when ministers moan that the EU interferes with their plans and frustrates their ambitions. Governments need restraints, and the framework of EU laws is one of the best protections we have against the whims of ministers, whether they be Conservatives or any other party. The Social Chapter guarantees our maternity and holiday rights and limits the hours we can be forced to work. It makes Europe unique, a continent with protections for citizens built in to the very fabric of the market.

The same is true of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), a British document written after the horror of the Second World War, enshrining values of democracy, tolerance and respect across a whole continent. It is the ultimate safeguard and recourse that citizens have against the state and has been at the heart of attempts by ordinary people to hold powerful institutions to account.

Anyone who has spoken out against state-sponsored injustice, whether it is the government, the police or even the NHS, will know that the ECHR is a vital ally in the fight for transparency, accountability and justice. Just ask the brave Hillsborough families how human rights can help to give victims the right to be heard and give a voice to the voiceless.

The Leave campaign has tried to pitch this debate as being about the people against the establishment. Nothing could be further from the truth. 
Europe is not an elite conspiracy against the public: at its best, it is the opposite. It is about the solidarity of the peoples of Europe with each other and our determination to create a better, freer and fairer world. It establishes a framework where citizens are protected from the state by common rules and standards.

This is valuable in Britain, but essential in other parts of the continent which may be more prone to abuses of government power. The European Union is not perfect, but it is the best expression of a powerful idea – the unity of purpose across a continent that has often been torn asunder by violence and conflict.

Turning our back on this idea, this dream based so heavily on British values, would be a huge mistake. On 23 June we should stand united with our neighbours, resolute in our belief that together we can achieve more than we ever can alone. l

Doreen Lawrence founded the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust and is a life peer

Dreams from my grandfather

By Alison McGovern

A great part of grief is regret: the feeling that if only the clock could be turned back, things could be done that were not done. This comes to me quite often, because I miss my grandad terribly. He died ten years ago, on 2 April 2006, one month before I entered office for the first time, as a local councillor. Like most grandads, he was a special person. He was dedicated to the causes he believed in, and he gave me his time and his attention.

My grandad was an internationalist. He was born with next to nothing in the docks area of Liverpool, the son of Irish immigrants who had fled rural poverty and political trouble. But his first job was ferrying money around Liverpool stockbrokers’ firms. So much money, when his family had so little. He stole books from the (then pay-by-subscription) library in order to read. He once said to me that it was impossible for McGoverns to be xenophobic, because we know we have more in common with ordinary families in Barcelona or Turin than we do with the mega-rich in our own country.

I regret that he never got to know that I was elected just after he died. I wish he could have been there to help with my first speech in parliament. I wish my daughter could have met him. But I also wish he could see what has happened since he died. I wish I could tell him that I think our family’s story is not just an ordinary story of European migration, though it certainly is. It is also classically British. In three long strides across three generations, we have walked out from that grinding poverty he knew and – through a love of reading and education – moved on. When I sit on the benches in the House of Commons, I do so in the knowledge that great British institutions are what made it happen.

From the council housing that gave my family a safe and dry place to live, to the National Health Service that has repeatedly saved my dad’s life, to the state schools that made my mum a nurse and me a philosophy student, to the universities that accepted me and gave me confidence – these building blocks were campaigned for and designed by Labour governments. The path I have trodden is alarmingly common in Britain. And it is the vision of Labour people that paved the way.

We believe that ordinary people must have the way to make the most of their talents opened up. Progress comes not from trying to beat back the waves of technology or globalisation, but rather by demanding that ordinary British people have their fair share of the wealth that comes from such progress.

That is why the demand we ought to make now is not to turn our back on our friends in Europe, but rather, to ask ourselves what change is necessary in order to ensure that people in Britain are able to make the most of being part of the world’s biggest trading bloc.

Certain institutions are necessary for this redistribution – the treasures that Labour leaders designed: the health service, state schools, the welfare state. Though the Tories batter them, we do not give up on our principles, because British people need these institutions in order to make the most of the chances the world has to offer. Imperfect though it is, the European Union is also such an institution.

My grandad struggled to get hold of books before the advent of free public libraries. Today he would marvel at the technology that puts literary classics in your hands without a second’s thought. So our children won’t just want to study in a city away from home in Britain, as I did; they will want to have access to the world of knowledge that technology now puts at their fingertips.

And so, the question we should ask ourselves is: should the fight to get new technology into the hands of the many, not the few, best be taken on through British isolationism or in concert with other countries? I believe the latest tax rows – taking on global giants such as Google and Amazon – demonstrate that it is only unions of countries that can challenge their might on behalf of ordinary people.

A decade ago, when my grandad died, he could not have imagined how my daughter would learn to read and do maths using an iPad with apps made all over the world. What could the next decade hold that could increase our ability to share new technology, learn more things, and do more with our talents?

The idea, then, that in the face of change we should turn in on ourselves and away from our friends is foolish. British leadership has been crucial in Europe before, and it is crucial now. The next gains for British people depend on it.

Alison McGovern is the MP for Wirral South (Labour) and the chair of Progress

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