The senior Northern Ireland civil servant, a veteran of the peace process and a plurality of crises over recent decades, shook his head as Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness gave separate, edgy press conferences outside Stormont Castle after they met the new British prime minister Theresa May in late July.
“It was all going so well,” he said. There was lamentation in his voice. And he repeated: “It was all going so well.”
That was May’s first visit to Northern Ireland as prime minister. Her wish was for a “practical solution” to the problems caused by Brexit, she assured us. From the pro-Leave First Minister we were told that Brexit “was a decision for all of the people of the United Kingdom”.
From the pro-Remain Deputy First Minister we heard that as 56 per cent of the people of the North voted to stay in the EU, he therefore spoke for the majority of the people of Northern Ireland. Oh no you don’t, said Foster.
No wonder the Stormont official was so lachrymose. Back in the early summer and after three years of stop-start government, Northern Ireland was at last facing into calm clear blue water. The Northern Assembly elections were out of the way with no elections due for a few years; the Stormont House Fresh Start Agreement struck last November was being implemented; and McGuinness and Foster gave the impression of two leaders set on pressing ahead with making Northern Ireland work.
But along came the European Union referendum vote, and Northern Ireland was plunged back into uncertainty and disagreement and the challenge of having to reconcile the irreconcilable.
As the civil servant indicated, there are choppy waters ahead. Nobody really knows what May means by “Brexit means Brexit”, notwithstanding that she provided a little more clarity with her statement that she would begin the process of leaving the EU by the end of next March.
And nobody really knows how Foster and McGuinness are going to square the diametrically opposing positions they have taken on Brexit.
For Northern Ireland to work, Foster and McGuinness and the DUP and Sinn Féin have to work together because they are the dominant politicians and parties in the North.
But ever since May made her announcement on Sunday they were again pulling in opposite directions. “The people of the North voted to stay in the EU. That vote must be recognised and respected in any negotiations,” said McGuinness.
In the Assembly chamber yesterday Foster reiterated that, regardless of the majority vote in Northern Ireland, the decision to leave the EU was a UK decision and it was binding.
“Now let’s get on with it and deal with the consequences,” she urged.
But Sinn Féin and some of the other Northern Ireland parties are not for getting on with it.
A challenge to the Brexit vote opens today in the Belfast High Court, taken by the likes of former Sinn Féin minister John O'Dowd, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, Alliance leader David Ford and Steven Agnew of the Greens.
Where that case will go is anybody’s guess, but it certainly is another complication in a very complicated situation.
Many questions, few answers
And the uncertainty and confusion must continue on a grand scale because while there are very many questions about Brexit there are few answers.
Will there be border controls? Northern Ireland Leave politicians contend that a hard border can be avoided, but then on Sunday May said controlling immigration would be a priority. How can that happen without customs posts and other border controls if the British government wants to prevent the Republic being a back door into Britain?
Will there be tariffs on goods passing across the Border? No answers there either. How will farmers cope with the possible eventual loss or reduction in subsidies that, through the EU, have been worth up to 87 per cent of their income? How will importers and exporters on both sides of the Border manage the current decline of sterling?
These are bread and butter issues. But Brexit also plays into tricky constitutional concerns. It’s not unreasonable to speculate that Brexit could prompt the Scots – who voted 62 per cent to Remain – to demand and perhaps even pass another referendum on quitting the UK. That would have a knock-on effect in Northern Ireland, and many unionists are aware of how unsettling that would be.
Moreover, most Northern nationalists are happy with the current constitutional arrangement. Through the North-South bodies they feel a real connection to the Republic, and they are conscious too how the European Union played – and continues to play through peace funding – a significant role in creating a new and wider dimension to the idea of sovereignty.
Emotionally, nationalists may regard the loss of the EU connection as unionist Brexiteers reasserting a John Bull mindset. The mood could sour. It’s difficult to predict how it will all unfold but Foster and McGuinness should be sufficiently savvy and experienced not to allow Brexit to derail what has been achieved. After all Northern Ireland has come through much worse. But, as the Stormont official said, before Brexit it was all going so well.
Gerry Moriarty is Northern Editor