Remarks by Brendan Howlin TD at UK Labour Party Conference 2018
Thank you for the invitation to speak today.
As I’m coming from an Irish perspective,
it won’t surprise anyone here that one of my main preoccupations at the moment is Brexit.
Other than the United Kingdom, no country will be as greatly affected by Brexit as Ireland.
In speaking to you today,
I am motivated by the spirit of internationalism and co-operation.
I have experienced first-hand the long-standing relationship between the Irish and British Labour Parties.
And I know full well the many deep bonds that exist between people in Ireland and Britain.
Liverpool is a fine example of how Irish people have made their home in England, while keeping many connections with Ireland,
Not least the many fans of Liverpool’s football clubs in Ireland, Who I know are regular visitors here.
Speaking to you two years ago, we were still in shock that the British people had voted to leave the European Union.
Speaking to you one year ago, we were concerned at the lack of progress towards a withdrawal agreement,
And we were still hopeful that Brexit could be democratically reversed.
Motivated by internationalism,
And with the desire to help Labour in its engagement with Brexit in the final months that remain,
The most useful thing that I can do, Is to be blunt.
As we saw in Salzburg last week,
Time has run out for diplomatic niceties.
Bluntly, for Ireland, there is no ‘good’ version of Brexit,
hard or soft.
Ireland’s approach to Brexit has always been very clearly based on damage limitation. Our hope is still for the least damaging version of Brexit.
Obviously, the best outcome for Ireland would be one where there is a second referendum,
in which the British people have the opportunity to democratically decide, based on new information,
about the different options for the UK’s relationship with the European Union.
Ireland would warmly welcome an outcome where the British people decided to remain in the EU.
But if there is going to be a British exit from the EU,
I remain alarmed at the inaccuracies still presented in the mainstream British media in relation to the Irish dimension of Brexit.
Whether due to ignorance,
Or wilful dismissal, in the case of some prominent Tories,
The presentation of the Irish border backstop is often misleading Or plain wrong.
As many of you know, the Irish border ‘backstop’ is to be a binding legal agreement, As part of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU,
To ensure the Belfast Good Friday Agreement continues to operate in full.
People in Northern Ireland, and Ireland, voted in referendums to endorse the Agreement. But it is not just an agreement between the UK and Ireland.
It is an agreement within the UK and between the people living in that part of the UK called Northern Ireland.
And due to Brexit, a question arises:
Is the UK Government still fully committed to preserving, in its entirety, the solemn Agreement that was made with the people living in Northern Ireland?
If so, that requires the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland.
We have heard repeated assurances from London that this commitment will be honoured. The UK Government agreed to no hard border in December 2017.
But we have also heard that ‘nothing is agreed, until everything is agreed’.
And the EU’s legal text defining what no hard border means was summarily rejected, months ago.
The Good Friday Agreement has become a bargaining chip in the larger UK-EU negotiations.
If the UK is committed to the Good Friday Agreement, without precondition,
then we should be aiming to agree the Irish ‘backstop’ separately from the rest of the UK’s withdrawal agreement.
It should not be the case that if the withdrawal agreement cannot be settled by March next year that the UK Government should break a solemn Agreement with part of its own people.
That’s the fly in the ointment.
The Good Friday Agreement makes Brexit much more complicated.
Ireland is politically and legally committed to the UK-EU27 negotiation process that is ongoing between Michel Barnier for the EU27 with the UK.
This political commitment is consistent across all the major parties in the Dáil, and there is probably more unity among the EU27 than within the UK Conservative Party on this process.
As a corollory of this, Ireland will resist attempts by the UK Government to seek a separate or parallel bilateral process to resolve issues unless agreed by the EU27.
In other words, although the backstop is about the border on the island of Ireland, It is an EU border, not just an Irish border,
And the kind of agreement required on the backstop includes EU competences on trade as well as matters reserved by the Government in Dublin.
The lack of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is probably the single most tangible social and economic change that people see as the real gain for them from the Good Friday Agreement.
It drives greater economic prosperity, which is a foundation for peace.
The lack of a border permits people, especially the nationalist community on both sides of the border, to visit friends and relatives, and to use shops and services on both sides of the border.
The 20 years since the Agreement have seen many more small roads opened up, increasing people’s ability to move seamlessly between both jurisdictions.
Business supply chains have also developed on a cross-border basis.
The fear of a ‘hard border’ is not primarily about a fear of returning to violence (although a small minority would target cameras or other border infrastructure).
Instead, it is about finding an alternative to the common set of European laws that underpins and permits the seamless interaction of people and businesses in Ireland and Northern Ireland at present.
Any kind of border checks or controls would be seen as a backwards step.
In particular, it would alienate the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland, which is the majority community in the border regions.
When we talk about avoiding a border on the island of Ireland, we are really talking about maintaining the free social and economic interaction of people on the island of Ireland.
This is not a new idea.
When Ireland was partitioned and the Irish Free State was established, nearly 100 years ago, something called the Common Travel Area was established.
The Common Travel Area provides additional rights to both British and Irish citizens to reside, work, vote and avail of public services in each other’s country.
Except for a period of Irish economic protectionism, which ended in the 1960s, the Common Travel Area also facilitated the British and Irish economies to become deeply interwoven.
Ireland and the UK is essentially a single labour market.
British and Irish enterprises find it relatively easy to establish branches in Ireland and the UK, respectively.
For the last seventy years, the UK and Ireland have been a mostly seamless economic zone. This was reinforced when we both joined the European Union at the same time.
And of course the rules of the European single market and customs union have increased British-Irish economic links.
And it is worth emphasising that Ireland accounts for 5.5% of UK exports and 3.4% of UK imports.
Ireland is the UK’s 5th largest export market.
We are told by the UK Government that they wish to preserve the Common Travel Area with Ireland,
And the EU will accept that, as the arrangements pre-date EU membership.
But the Common Travel Area only exists as a political agreement, not a written treaty or legislation.
If we are going to continue the special relationship between Ireland and Britain, we should seek the Common Travel Area to be put into law.
Naturally, Ireland wants the UK to remain as close as possible to the EU’s single market and customs union,
Even though the Irish economy has diversified and is far less reliant on exporting to Britain than it was even twenty years ago.
The Common Travel Area alone will not permit us to maintain our current level of economic integration with the UK.
There are doubtless some Tories who don’t care if Irish farmers lose their best export market.
They are quite content to replace Irish beef with cheaper hormone-treated meat from South America, and to replace Irish free range poultry with chlorinated chickens.
For some, that’s what freeing Britain to make global trade deals really means.
Not only will British working families be expected to eat lower standard food if this version of global Britain comes to pass,
But they will be exposed to more direct competition from around the globe,
With the real risk of a race to the bottom in worker’s rights and environmental standards.
although we would prefer the UK to remain inside the EU, we also need to prepare for a future where British and Irish officials and politicians no longer have frequent contact through the European institutions.
We need to replace all the contact that occurs at EU level, informally as well as formally, which is the basis for practical co-operation on a whole host of shared interests.
We should now strengthen existing institutions and,
supplement them to restore and maintain good British-Irish relations, perhaps specifically Anglo-Irish relations,
into the future.
Most importantly, this would provide a way to slowly rebuild trust and co-operation between our Governments.
And ensure that the excellent British-Irish relationship that was built after the Good Friday Agreement continues long into the future.
I hope that we can count on our many friends in the British Labour Party and the Labour Movement here to vocally champion Ireland’s interests,
and to ensure that the gains made by the Good Friday Agreement are not sacrificed in the final, fraught negotiations.