Simon says: An Exclusive Interview with MP Simon Hoare

By Pip Murrison &

Profile speaks to the Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee MP Simon Hoare about Northern Ireland, Brexit and the state of democracy.

Why do you think the DUP have not been supportive of ’s or Boris Johnson’s deal?

It’s impossible to physically police the border. Any infrastructure put in for customs surveillance, number plate recognition, etcetera would be torn down six hours after being put up […] So there was no way on God’s earth – and this was the challenge, really – that you could have any form of hard or soft border along the border between the two and maintain the integrity of the Good Friday agreement. […] What has been realised is that you couldn’t do a north-south border arrangement which did not fall foul of the Good Friday agreement. The Good Friday agreement is a bit weird because if you talk to, dare I say ‘your generation’, you have only ever known no IRA activity on the mainland. Not opening your daily newspaper reporting on the latest horrific bomb blast taking place somewhere in Northern Ireland. It’s not so real. The DUP, possibly, are kicking themselves that they didn’t support Theresa May’s deal, because they are ending up with the prospect of a customs union line down the Irish sea, which Theresa said she could never countenance and Boris said he would never support.

Do you think that leaving the EU will impact Northern Irish identity?

I don’t think people identify their citizenship, their nationality, their head of state relationship by the mechanism through which their breakfast cornflakes have arrived from the depot onto their breakfast table. Very few people, maybe two people who are rather eccentric, identify by the customs arrangements that gets products in and out of their country.

Do you think that Northern Ireland will want to reunite with the Republic at some point in the future?

My hunch is there is a certain inevitability which leads you to certainly having a border poll. […] The answer lies within the unionist community itself or their political representatives. The DUP needs a David Cameron type figure, who modernizes it and makes a positive case for secular unionism rather than religious, Ulster nationalism. Unless or until they do that, the base is shrinking! If you look at the Tory party, unless we do a wider cast of our net, we’re only scoring the majority of votes in the over 65 age bracket, which is shrinking because of natural wastage! Unless we keep people cryogenically frozen and only defrost them at election time and wheel them out to the polling station, it is a declining group of people that you are relying upon.

Do you think that abortion and same-sex marriage for Northern Ireland should be decided by Westminster or Stormont?

As the chairman of the (Northern Ireland Affairs) Select Committee, I didn’t take part in any of the votes – but in essence, it was a de facto declaration of direct rule on two important yet emotive public policy issues, which hitherto had been devolved. We then ran into the unanswerable question: ‘If there is pressure for change, and the vehicle that can deliver or debate the change, i.e. Stormont, isn’t in existence, does that mean that change can’t be delivered?’ That was the very strong argument that people put. I’m sure that for some it was a leg pulling exercise. You say Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, the citizen who lives in Belfast has exactly the same rights as someone who lives in Blandford Forum in my constituency – except when it comes to abortion, except when it comes to civil marriage, we want to be entirely different. So there was a bit of a challenge for the narrative logic of unionism: we want to be the same, except when we want to be different.

What are your predictions for the next general election?

If Brexit hasn’t been delivered, the winners will be the Brexit party and the Liberal Democrats. The Conservative Party and the Labour Party will be squashed in the middle because, in essence, it will be a re-run of the referendum. If it has been delivered, then I think the choice will be between competence and communism. And I hope, competence wins the day. What were your reasons for voting remain in 2016, and how has your stance on Brexit changed since then? We kept saying [Brexit] was a national debate; it wasn’t, it was a fault line in the Conservative Party and we used the nation to try and solve it. Well, that went beautifully well, didn’t it? I think we are now more divided as a country than we ever have been probably since appeasement and certainly since the English Civil War. But if you are a democrat, you say, ‘We asked the country a question and they gave us the answer.’ Did the answer come as a shocker and a surprise? Yes, it actually came as a shocker and a surprise to people like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson. They were staggered to win. But you can’t then go and second guess the electorate. I get very frustrated with people who were on my side of the referendum (remain), saying, ‘We will only leave when the terms are as good as we have today.’ It can’t happen because no organization is going to give you the same terms and privileges and rights with no subscription fee being paid. It’s a bloody nonsense. They’re either hoping for a general election which is going to change it or somebody goes ‘you can’t rely upon the position taken in 2016, you’ve got to have another one to refresh the mandate’. That is now causing considerable alarm and annoyance to a lot of our constituents, irrespective of how our constituents voted.

Has Brexit become more about political machinations rather than listening to and acting on behalf of voters?

I think a lot has become self-endorsing echo chamber. I hear the same arguments deployed to support leave, to support remain, as I heard three and a half years ago. This is the crunch moment of politics. Politicians are always held in pretty low regard, below estate agents, rat catchers and maybe taxidermists. But we said we would listen, and we said we would abide. Well if you extrapolate that out and we don’t […] What’s the point of voting? What we don’t want to see is a dramatic downturn in the turnout in the next general election where people just say, ‘What’s the point?’

Do you think the youth vote and turnout has been affected by Brexit?

I can remember shortly after the referendum walking across College Green, there was a big protest, predominantly of young people, who were wanting to remain. And someone said to me ‘you look like a Tory MP’. I’m not quite sure what that means…. well guilty as charged! I ended up having one of those conversations with twenty people, sort of like a mini public meeting. Only ten of them had voted in the referendum. I said, ‘Well what do you do?’ ‘Well, we tweeted about it. We posted on Facebook about it.’ They probably thought I was just trying to be a clever dick, but I said, ‘The returning officer counts ballot papers, he does not do a calculation: now we’ve got this many votes, that many tweets, those many Facebook posts, that equals that therefore the result is… No, he just counts the ballot papers.’ The making of politics is the making of the case, the knocking on the doors, the putting up the posters, making street stalls, and advocating for what you believe to be right to the general public. You have bricks thrown at you, you have flowers thrown at you, but that’s democracy. We’ve moved from democracy to ‘click-ocracy’. And that’s very very worrying indeed. There was no demonstrable shift in the dial of first or young voters on 2017 as we’ve had in previous elections.

One last question: this issue will come out on October 31. What is your prediction for Brexit?

Oh God. Can’t I give you the lottery numbers for Christmas eve? I think that would be a lot easier. I hope so. But the mathematics of parliament don’t suggest that we will.

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