This past week has sadly brought further damaging rhetoric in the Brexit process and some who ought to be statesmanlike have been anything but.
This is surely a moment for statesmanship and for finding a way through the current impasse. We must calm things down and focus on developing a common sense solution to Brexit and the Irish border question in particular. In this context I welcome the visits of both the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach to Belfast and the meeting between both leaders in Dublin: this is the kind of engagement and leadership that is needed to help find a sensible way forward.
I recognise that the UK and the Irish Republic do not agree on Brexit itself and that many in Ireland feel hurt by the decision of the UK to leave the EU. Nevertheless, it is important we all respect democratic decisions of this nature, even when we don’t agree with them. Undoubtedly, the last two years have seen damage done to the three sets of relationships that formed the core of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement.
The absence of the political institutions, including the Assembly and the North-South Ministerial Council, has been to the detriment of all of us. Just think how differently we might have handled this very difficult situation if such institutions had been in place to provide a forum within which Belfast and Dublin could engage and take a more considered view on all of this. Instead, the politics of cooperation has been replaced by the old ways of megaphone diplomacy.
However, we are where we are and leaders on both sides of the border have hitherto shown a remarkable capacity to overcome enormous challenges in the peace process to find our way to the common ground. In the remaining weeks leading up to 29th March, we must do so again. Whilst it is London and Brussels who take the lead in negotiations, I believe that Dublin and Belfast can play a constructive role in helping to find the solutions.
We can begin by recognising that we already occupy significant common ground.
We all agree that the need to protect the peace process and the political and institutional arrangements of the Good Friday, St Andrews and Stormont House Agreements is vital.
Secondly, none of us want a hard border on the island of Ireland or the creation of a new border in the Irish Sea. Both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland do a substantial amount of trade with Great Britain as well as with each other. The Common Travel Area ensures the free movement of people across the islands and is accepted by the EU. Now we need to find a sensible solution to ensure a similar approach on the smooth movement of goods. We in the DUP are of the view that a pragmatic approach can deliver an outcome on customs and trade that does not fundamentally undermine the EU single market or the UK single market.
Thirdly, both countries want to avoid a ‘no-deal’ outcome if possible as we recognise this could have significant implications for the short- to medium-term economic stability and prosperity of both parts of the island. Building stability and prosperity goes hand in hand with building peace.
For us, the primary problem with the draft Withdrawal Agreement is the backstop. It is not only the DUP that has concerns about the backstop and our opposition to it has been supported by many from all parties across the House of Commons.
On two occasions now, the House of Commons has voted decisively to reject the backstop in its current form and to call for legally-binding changes to these potentially harmful proposals. Our position on the backstop is also supported by other unionists like Nobel Peace laureate Lord Trimble, who has said that the proposals have the potential to “turn the Belfast Agreement on its head and do serious damage to it.”
Lord Trimble is in the process of taking legal action to challenge the legality of the backstop and his case is supported by leading experts on the Good Friday Agreement such as Professor Lord Bew. For such key architects of the Good Friday Agreement to raise serious concerns about the damaging nature of the proposed backstop must surely encourage the Taoiseach and others to pause and consider other options which are capable of commanding a wider cross-border and cross-community consensus.
If the current impasse between the UK and EU over the backstop results in no-deal then it will further damage relationships between Northern Ireland and the Republic and undermine the prospects for restoring the political institutions. The absence of these institutions over the past two years has seen a re-polarisation of attitudes on both sides in Northern Ireland.
In my opinion, securing a deal on Brexit that is broadly acceptable can only improve the prospects for restoring the institutions. It may suit Sinn Fein to have a chaotic situation, but it surely can’t be in the interests of anyone else. Sinn Fein has tried to exploit the uncertainty over Brexit to raise the border poll issue, hoping to force a referendum in the near term. This is, of course, a party that was fiercely opposed to Ireland’s membership of the EU and sought to vote down each successive European Treaty. Clearly, Sinn Fein is self-serving, and its claim to act in the wider interests of the ‘Irish people, north and south’, is bogus.
The consequences of a no-deal outcome will undoubtedly impact on the economies on both sides of the border, with their heavy dependence on the agri-food sector. InterTrade Ireland commissioned the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI), an Irish think-tank, to conduct an analysis of the impact of Brexit on the Irish border. ESRI looked at several different scenarios, including one where trade between Ireland and the UK would be based on WTO rules. The resulting imposition of tariffs and non-tariff barriers in this scenario could result in Irish trade to Great Britain falling by 12%, British trade to Ireland falling by 6%, Irish trade to Northern Ireland falling by 14%, and Northern Irish trade to Ireland falling by 19% – resulting in a total reduction in cross-border trade of 16%.
Agri-food in particular is a sector that has expressed concerns about no-deal. A study of the impact of a no-deal Brexit on the EU’s agri-food industry has claimed that beef and cheese exports from Ireland to the UK could collapse by up to 90% with the loss of over 3,500 jobs. No amount of preparation by any government can nullify the significant economic implications outlined.
Additionally, a further fall in the value of sterling in a no-deal scenario would worsen the outcome for Irish exports to Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In this scenario, Irish trade to Great Britain would fall by 20%, British trade to Ireland would remain broadly similar (at +0.3 %), Irish trade to Northern Ireland would fall 21%, and Northern Irish trade to Ireland would fall 11% – so there would be a total fall in cross-border trade of 17%.
Despite these stark statistics, there are some who seem determined to impose the backstop. Yet the Withdrawal Agreement and backstop in their current form have been roundly rejected in the UK Parliament because they could lock us indefinitely into an arrangement that undermines the economic integrity of the UK. The backstop is designed to prevent a hard border but could ultimately result in no-deal and actually compel the EU to impose a hard border in Ireland.
Having been an MP for over 20 years and in frontline politics since the early 1980s, too many times have I seen politicians become wedded to an idea and intent on implementing it, even when they are aware of the dire consequences. Now is not a time for brinkmanship but for leadership.
I am convinced that there are better solutions than this. Whilst I am not going to be prescriptive in this article about what they may be, I am aware of several ideas, including the ‘Malthouse Compromise’, that are surely worthy of serious consideration. If the political will is there on both sides, I firmly believe we can find a solution.
The people of the United Kingdom voted by a majority to Leave the European Union. Despite this, the leadership of the EU and some in the UK have sought to frustrate the will of the people and to make it as difficult as possible for our country to Leave. The indefinite nature of the backstop would harm the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK.
The EU leaders have asked Parliament to state clearly what we want. That answer is now clear and the EU must address British concerns about the backstop if a no-deal outcome is to be avoided.
If the EU truly want to avoid harm to the peace process and to protect the political arrangements established under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, then they need to take account of unionist concerns as well as those of nationalists, otherwise, as Lord Trimble has said, they violate the core principles of the Agreement.
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