by Nadia Turki
Lord John Alderdice is a psychiatrist by profession, but as Leader of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, he played a significant role in the Talks on Northern Ireland including the negotiation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. He was the first Speaker of the new Northern Ireland Assembly and has held many international positions including as President of Liberal International, the global network of more than 100 liberal political parties. Since 1996 he has sat as a Liberal Democrat life member of the House of Lords, and is currently Director of the Centre for the Resolution of Intractable Conflict at Harris Manchester College, Chairman of the Centre for Democracy and Peace Building in Belfast, and Presidente d’Honneur of Liberal International.
In an interview with Majalla, Lord Alderdice discusses Brexit, Britain’s future, and the West’s role in post-Arab uprising countries.
by Nadia Turki
Q. Britain has moved onto the second stage of the Brexit negotiations and it appears that developments have been made. What is your reading of the situation thus far?
Well I think the first thing is understanding where the problem comes from, why did people after 40 years decide that they didn’t want to be part of the European union anymore? And this is not just a British question because there are quite a lot of people across Europe who are beginning to be very uncertain about whether they really like the European project which is very unfortunate because it is an extremely good project. It was of course really a peace process, it was a way of them making sure Europe didn’t go back to war again. But it has become rather centralized, there is a lot of the bureaucracy in Brussels and indeed the senior political figures don’t really seem to have much sensitivity to the diversions and diversity of cultures and attitudes within Europe.
The result of this is that many people have felt alienated from the process and at the same time there are others demanding that the process becomes even tighter. So, here you have got a very divided society in the UK where there are many people who are what we call Remainers; they still want the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union, and a very substantial number of Brexiteers; people who don’t want that at all. This has polarized the community enormously. There are not that many people in the middle who are looking plus-minus at it. So that’s the first thing to understand; there’s a lot of division and this division extends to divisions within political parties, particularly within the Labour Party and to some extent the Conservative Party as well. Of course, the Conservative Party doesn’t have a majority now and so they need the support of a party from Northern Ireland which is a Brexit party. Most people in Northern Ireland want to remain within the European Union but this particular party, the Democratic Union Party (DUP), is the one which doesn’t want to remain with the EU.
This means that Theresa May is not in a very strong position within the country. If it was a big majority of people who were backing what she’s doing then it would be a little bit different. There’s a majority but its finely balanced.
Secondly, senior people in the European Union are very, very unhappy about this decision. They’re unhappy not just because it’s good to have Britain involved and because Britain pays a lot of money into the European Union – which are important things – but I sense also there’s a frustration and a disappointment that Britain has always been a little bit argumentative about the European process – always more keen for the free market to develop and less keen about the political stuff. But also, it sends a bad message that there’s a major country that’s been a member for a long time that wants to leave.
There are not very well thought through procedures for a country withdrawing from the European Union because they never expected it to happen. The only procedure there is article 50 where the leader of the country sends a message saying we want to withdraw and then there’s a progressive negotiation for two years. But at the end of those years, whether they actually agree or don’t agree, the membership finishes. So, it’s not a question of saying ok well we’ll see how things are in March 2019 and then we’ll decide whether to stay or not, once you’ve started on that route its very, very difficult in psychological terms and in political terms to withdraw from it.
What most sensible people want is an agreement that will ensure that trade and a degree of free movement can continue but part of the whole point of leaving is for the UK to have more more control of immigration, more control of its own laws and more control of its own self as a country, and so it’s not prepared to accept various things which might be proposed by Europe if it means that they don’t have control of those things. Now you might say that control of those things is not as all-encompassing and as sovereign as it was 50 years or 100 years ago, and that’s right, but people are voting because of how they feel, they’re not voting because of facts. They feel very strongly and that’s an important driver. So, in practical terms, one of the places that it becomes a big difficulty is the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland because that now becomes an EU border.
Q. Whose fault is it that the UK ended up in this difficult situation of leaving the European Union?
Well, the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats all agreed that there should be a referendum. The reason for that was because for years and years there had been a rise of a party called UKIP (The UK Independence Party) and the question of the relationship with Europe kept coming back onto the agenda again and again. And so finally the parties decided to let the people get their say and then they’ll put it to bed. They absolutely did not expect the outcome and so no one really prepared for something which they didn’t want to happen and didn’t believe would happen.
The second thing is that many of the brightest, most capable, most influential, and most knowledgeable people were on the remain side and emotionally they were completely shocked and traumatized by what had happened. They just couldn’t believe it. It’s a little bit like the when the Democrats in the US could not believe that Donald Trump could be elected. And my sense is that the Democrats are still traumatized by that, they still don’t quite know what to do, they haven’t really got an alternative person or an alternative strategy or anything because when people get into such a state they’re capacity to be creative and free in their thinking and their ability to fantasize and imagine all get closed down. That is the position that people are still in in this country, and so the normal, flexible, creative, imaginative response is not as creative as it usually is because there is still that class of people – I don’t associate them as economic class, I mean intellectual and political class – of people still so traumatized by what happened that they’re not thinking very clearly.
Q. After Brexit, will Britain try to forge new trade deals with countries such as China and South Korea? Could Britain become more politically open and turn its back on Europe in favor of other better opportunities?
I don’t think Britain will turn its back on Europe, we are part of Europe we will always be part of Europe.
There are always other opportunities. You mentioned the whole question of Asia and the rise of Asia. It’s no question that many people in Britain have been looking towards Asia for some years, so certainly that will be a focus and we’ve had prime ministerial visits to China. But there is a network of relationships in the Commonwealth – these are countries which mostly were part of the British empire, they speak English, they use a common-law system, they have very similar attitudes toward quite a lot of things. There are many people in this country who now live here and are citizens but they come from Commonwealth countries like India, Pakistan or of course Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Canada, Caribbean Islands, many parts of Africa. Our English speaking common-law jurisdiction, with lots of not just historic relationships but personal relationships, it would be arguably astonishing if that was also not a focus and there weren’t serious attempts, not to revive it, but to build on that network. So, I don’t think people will turn their backs on Europe, but I think Europe will be less of a total focus than perhaps it has been for some time.
When I was in Tunisia for example, there was some people saying to me, you know we have a very strong French background but we are not entirely unbenevolent about our relationship with France. But in terms of language, for the future we think a lot of our young people would benefit a lot by learning French then English as a second language and therefore we’re interested in cooperation with the UK, whether the UK is in the EU or not. So, I think there are lots of countries in newly developing regions like Asia and individual countries that say this might benefit us and Britons always had a rather free variety of its international relations. I think this will encourage British people to do the same again.
Q. When you ask some people about how they view Britain after Europe, they say that the future remains blurred. How do you see Britain after Brexit?
Well the culture of these islands is a very strong deep historic culture, and its different from continental European countries. It shares things but it is also different and so although for quite some time people will see Britain in the context for the European Union, I think there is also another set of views of Britain from the past and in terms of its independent capacities. I think it will take a little time for people to work through that and Briton has got a pretty strong brand if one wants to look at it in advertising terms.
It is important to remember the whole European project was essentially to ensure that the continental Europeans did not go back to war again, but it was never an issue for Britain, Britain did not join the EU for those reasons. Britain joined because of the free market and that was always its orientation. It joined for economic and market reasons and so it will retain its identity of its culture and develop it in other ways.
Q. The speed of change during the Arab uprisings meant that countries did not have an alternative to the dictatorships they were over throwing and therefore were left with empty government buildings and no plan on how to move forward. How do you view these events?
Well the problem is that if you start off by a long period of time where any new thinking or experimentation or creativity is held back, then the pressure builds and builds and eventually it explodes, and that’s what happened, it exploded. So, when you get an explosion like this, you don’t get something positive coming out of it, you get a destructive process. And yes, something can grow but don’t expect something thoughtful and mature and want it to grow immediately.
Q. So how would you fix the mess?
Well in Tunisia you have the best possibility of any of the countries because you have a range of people with different perspectives and different cultures and understandings prepared to try and work at a democratic process. And they’re talking together and they’re taking a chance and are prepared to accept the chance that it might go out of government as well.
What Tunisia needs is engagement, relationships and nourishment of the outside world in the region and beyond. And of course, the country and the government are going to make mistakes and they’re going to do the things you don’t want them to do.
What we must not do in the Middle East is come in to wreck it and what we must also not do is give undue support to people we basically do not agree with and do not support just because even if they are not on our side, they’re against the people we’re against. And that’s the fundamental strategic error that is being made by the West because it’s not really thinking about what needs to be done.
Q. Why is the West not doing enough about the situation in Libya? In Syria, negotiations are moving towards an agreement but we have not seen the same in Libya. Some people hold the view that this is because the West is not ready to deal with Tripoli. What is your view on the situation? Is the West doing anything to bring opposing sides together in Libya?
I don’t think it’s about the West wanting it to stay like that. There have been lots of efforts to do all sorts of things but the problem in Libya is that during Gaddafi’s time, he just destroyed all elements of civil society. So, when you wipe him out you’re just left with chaos and the only thing that’s left below the chaos are old tribal loyalties. The only thing the West knows how to do is to bring in Western type structures and democracy but if all you have got are old tribal structures, that doesn’t fit with that kind of democracy. So, the West does not want Libya to be a mess, people sometimes think that because they assume that the West could make a better job of it if they didn’t want it to be a mess, but this is over estimating the West. The West does not want Libya to be a mess, they just have no idea what to do with it.