Brexit is a tragedy not a farce

21 March 2018

Keynote Address by Brendan Howlin, Leader of the Labour Party at  public meeting on Brexit, 21st March, 2018

Good evening.

It is a pleasure to welcome you all here to the Gresham Hotel to discuss the implications of Brexit for Ireland.

About a year ago, we hosted a similar event in the Royal Irish Academy.

Since then, it is disappointing to say that the risks to Ireland remain present;

The fears of Tory recklessness, have only grown.

It is therefore timely that we gather once more – voices from across this island, and from the UK, to consider how this mess might best be unraveled.

In the first instance, it is my pleasure to welcome our guest speakers for the evening.

Owen Smith, the Shadow Spokesperson on Northern Ireland, and a great friend of both Ireland’s and Labour’s, was due to join us this evening.

Unfortunately, the introduction of a Northern Ireland budget, not at Stormont, but at Westminster, has called him away.

I could make some jokes about a Welsh reluctance to visit the home of the Grand Slam Champions.

But the presence of a Kinnock in Owen’s place would make doing so a little ungracious!

The Kinnock name is well known to those of us in the Irish Labour Party.

Stephen’s dad Neil was a frequent visitor to this country during his time as Leader of the Labour Party.

Oddly enough, those visits seemed to coincide with international rugby fixtures. 

Despite the passage of time, both Neil and Glenys are regarded with great affection among our ranks.

But Stephen is much more than merely his father’s son.

I have had the opportunity to debate the future of social democracy at several events over the last couple of years.

At many of those events, and particularly those hosted by Global Progress and the Policy Network, Stephen has been present.

And more than present – he has shown himself to be a genuinely independent thinker – rooted in social democratic values, but always searching for new ways to connect those values to our policies.

It is my pleasure to welcome him to Dublin this evening.

Everyone here will already be familiar with Mark Durkan.

Mark served as the leader of our sister party in Northern Ireland, and for many years as the MP for Foyle.

He is also, in my view, a very deep political thinker.

His presence is sadly missed in the House of Commons where the voice of the majority of the people that opposed Brexit goes unrepresented. 

Anyone who has been following Mark’s comments on this issue, Brexit, in particular, know well his capacity and the analytical skill that might have been deployed in all our interests in the House of Commons. 

Our friend Patricia King certainly needs no introduction. 

Patricia is a long-time friend of Labour.

She is a steely negotiator; a battler for workers’ rights; and an exemplar for women.

Indeed, it is notable that the current General Secretaries of Congress both here in the UK are women – hopefully the employer side might learn something from the ability of formidable women to lead organisations, and indeed to be paid equally for such work.

Over recent years, I occasionally had to sit opposite Patricia during difficult times.

And indeed I hope she found in me an ally for progressive values, even during the toughest of times.

Tragedy, not farce

Almost two years have now passed since the British people voted in the Brexit referendum.

For those of us this island, those two years have seen plenty of anxious moments.

And yet, as we watch the chaos at the heart of the British Government;

As we observe the deep and continuing humiliations imposed upon the Prime Minister Teresa May;

It is tempting to view the situation as some kind of macabre farce.

It is anything but. What we are viewing is tragedy.

In the first place, of course, a tragedy for the United Kingdom.

A country, much like the US at present, retreating from how the world currently does its business, and turning instead towards a nostalgic dream of a yesterday long gone by.

It is also a tragedy for the European Union.

Brexit means the loss of one of the strongest economies in the EU; and also the difficult cousin that regularly checked the naive ambitions of some of the most starry-eyed Euro-federalists.

It is, of course, a tragedy for this country too. 

We no more want East-West frontiers than we do North-South borders.

We have gone on a journey over recent decades.

From the bombing of Brighton to the Queen’s warm welcome to Dublin, we have born witness to a relationship transformed.

But having recalibrated this relationship to be one of respectful equals, we are now almost being asked to start again.

With Northern Ireland left in an appalling state of limbo.

We cannot underestimate how difficult restarting will be, or how much energy it will involve; 

Energy that might otherwise be expended on deepening and broadening existing friendships, and on improving the living standards of all our citizens.

Part of me would like to think that this can still be avoided. 

But the Tory Government seems intent to continue down a road towards the most damaging and divisive Brexit possible.

We can and must put obstacles in the way.

We can ensure our interests are represented.

But only the British people can stop them.

We here in Ireland owe people like Stephen and Owen a debt of gratitude. 

Within the ranks of their own party they have kept the issue of Ireland to the fore.

And last month that pressure bore some fruit when the party leadership adopted a position of seeking to maintain a customs union with the EU as a negotiating position. 

This position represents clear blue water between the Labour Party and the Tories.

It is a very significant step.

And it would go some way to addressing the issues being discussed this week between our respective Governments and the European Commission. 

The forthcoming vote on the customs bill is of monumental importance. 

Parliament has already imposed an onus on the Government to revert to it with the final deal – although the Tories seem to want to renege on that too.

Now it will fully consider mandating the UK Government to enter into a customs union with the EU. 

During that debate, the absence of voices like Mark’s will not help.

That the people of Northern Ireland will only be represented by the DUP advancing a Government position for which they have no mandate for is a further tragedy.

I hear today that two former UK Deputy Prime Ministers have indicated that Sinn Féin should not attend at Westminster and vote to minimise the impact of Brexit on Ireland

What kind of message is this?

Are they saying that the voice of northern anti Brexit voices – for there are more than nationalists involved here – should not be represented at Westminster?

Are they saying that the community most impacted by this Brexit vote which they know is ruinous for Northern Ireland should not be represented at Westminster?

Are they saying that British Parliamentarians who recognise the economic damage Brexit will do will change their minds on that and damage their constituents simple because Sinn Fein were present?

I would remind them that it is precisely this attitude towards nationalists that contributed to the problem in the first place.

Telling elected MPs not to represent their constituents is an extraordinary statement and has no place in a modern democracy.

It is true that I would like to see that position go further than the proposed amendment.

I don’t have any truck with the so-called Lexit arguments made within the Labour Party in the UK against the EU.

The idea that the European Union, the originator of much of regional policy development over its sixty years, would prevent a Labour Government in the UK addressing the problems of regional post-industrialisation seem to me bizarre.

The idea that it is anybody but the fault of the British Government that it has adopted a passive attitude to state aid rules is equally bizarre.

The studies have been done.  There is little in the Party’s manifesto at the last election that the Commission would have issues with it.

It’s a very political institution.  I think a British Government committed to staying within the single market and the customs union would find that it could get things done far easier than it thinks.

Here in Ireland we have no difficulties with nationalised energy companies, naitionalised bus and rail companies, dare I say it a nationalised water utility, nationalised peat and forestry companies and despite engaging with the European Commission from a position of no great strength in recent times we in the Labour Party were able to maintain that position.  Fine Gael were a greater threat!

The British Labour Party has come a long way over the last 18 months and more.

Each time they move, they have succeeded in shifting the Tory position a little more away from hard Brexit.

I hope we will see more such moves over the months ahead.

Over the last few days, we have heard much about an EU backstop.

The maintenance of such an option is important.

That is why Labour in this country has supported the Irish Government’s position and will continue to do so.

But a backstop is just that – it is a solution of last resort.

The other two options outlined last December now seem to have faded from relevance.

To one extent, the likelihood of the backstop becoming the end result represents only a form of mutually assured destruction.

And the continuing portrayal by elements of the British media of any reasonable solution to the border as a form of further humiliation for Theresa May makes this end point more and more likely.

The willingness of both the Tory and DUP parties to walk away from international obligations under the Good Friday Agreement is fundamentally tragic.

But, all that said, we must all on this island be clear that this is not where we want these discussions to end. 

I share the UK Government’s reluctance to see an East-West customs border between our two countries. 

Such a divide would be bad for trade, bad for jobs and bad for business in Ireland, Northern Ireland and the UK. 

The Labour Party’s proposal not only would go some way to addressing this issue it would also be of some assistance in addressing the Dover question, which in my view, will begin to loom larger in the British debate as time goes on.

Teresea May has now finally acknowledged that the UK is engaging in these discussions, not to enhance trading arrangements with its nearest neighbours, but to limit the damage that will be done.  Unnecessary sacrifices will need to be made.

And that is, perhaps above all else, why this process is a tragedy. 

Nobody told the British people in advance of the referendum that their Government would be involved in an exercise simply to limit the damage to the UK.

Every economic study conducted, by either the Irish or British Governments, says that Brexit will make our people worse off.

As is so often the case, the impact will be all the greater in the communities that can afford that hit the least.


I have spoken several times in the UK, including at the most recent Party Conferences in Liverpool and Brighton, supporting a referendum on the final outcome of the talks process.

It seems to me that what will be arrived at following negotiations will fall some way short of what the British people were promised during the referendum campaign. 

That being the case, the people should surely be asked to vote on the issue again – either by way of a referendum, or by way of a General Election.

Of course, the idea of continuing membership of the single market and customs union is not without problems for the UK.

But taking back control is not proving to be the panacea that it promised to be. 

Nor can it be so in our interwoven and interdependent world.  

We are, in truth, all internationalists now.

And no jingoistic appeals to our baser instincts will reverse this trend;

No matter how much money or right-wing politicians try to persuade us otherwise.

A particular irony of the Brexit campaign was that it was led by those who sought to have control taken back to Westminster.

Those same forces now act with blatant disregard for that place.

And yet, Westminster continues to do its work.

If the British Government wonder why the European Commission adopts such a robust line on the border question, they would do well to examine the report on the border issued by the cross party Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee last week.

That report made clear that there is no globally available technological solution to the commitments already entered into on the border question.

Equally significantly the all-party Brexit Committee, recognising the reality I think of Britain’s preparedness for the realities of Brexit, indicated its support for an extended transition period. 

If we cannot achieve sensible outcomes within the next year, that must be considered.

For a disaster postponed is better than one embraced. 

Too many are willing to embrace disaster throughout this debate.

We must stand for something better.

And we will.

Thank you.

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