Speech by Brendan Howlin TD on pre European Council Meeting 17-18 October
Ireland has three demands in relation to Brexit:
· Certainty that we will retain an open border with Northern Ireland,
· Guarantees for the rights of all Irish citizens in the UK,
· And a close East-West trading relationship between Ireland and Britain.
The first two issues form part of the Withdrawal Agreement currently under negotiation.
The main focus of the talks has been on how to maintain an open border.
But continuity of citizens’ rights is also vitally important for the half a million Irish citizens in Britain.
And we are not neutral with respect to the outcome of the eventual Future Relationship between the UK and EU.
We would prefer a second vote, and for the UK to remain in the Union.
But failing that, we want the closest possible trading relationship.
In that context, listening carefully to what the UK Prime Minister actually said yesterday, she reported progress on some of the technicalities.
She says that the UK and EU have agreed legal text around the implementation period, about citizens’ rights and about the financial settlement.
She claims that the terms of the UK’s exit “are now clear”.
She also says that there is broad agreement on the “framework” for the future EU-UK relationship, “with progress on issues like security, transport and services.”
This is all welcome.
But the sticking point is the open border with Northern Ireland.
We asked the Taoiseach to avoid this scenario by getting agreement on Irish concerns at the June EU summit.
And again in the exceptional September summit.
And now at the October summit it looks like the Irish border will continue to be unresolved.
For the first time in the years that I’ve speaking to my European colleagues in other socialist and labour parties, I’ve heard the suggestion that the Irish backstop issue might be postponed?
It’s only a suggestion at this stage.
But it would be deeply dangerous for Ireland’s interests.
And any such suggestion must be resisted.
We are now seeing precisely the scenario that we asked the Taoiseach to avoid…
We asked the Taoiseach to avoid the Irish border becoming a bargaining chip in the final negotiations.
But now it is not only a bargaining point, it has become the central issue upon which the whole Withdrawal Agreement is balanced precariously.
Our position, from the outset, has been that if the UK is sincerely committed to the Good Friday Agreement, as they say they are,
then they must go the extra mile to preserve the benefits of that Agreement, including the open border.
Even in the hardest of hard Brexits, the UK would still have a formal commitment to uphold the Good Friday Agreement, and to preserve the open border.
Instead, we are told that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’.
The Irish border has become a central issue in the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement, rather than being about a British government fulfilling its promise to the people of Northern Ireland to uphold the Good Friday Agreement.
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 20 years since the Agreement have seen many more small roads opened up, increasing people’s ability to move seamlessly between both jurisdictions.
People can and do access shops and services on both sides of the border.
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 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 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.
Theresa May acknowledged just yesterday that the UK and the EU share a “profound responsibility to ensure the preservation of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, protecting the hard won peace and stability in Northern Ireland and ensuring that life continues essentially as it does now.”
She agreed that the future economic partnership “should provide for solutions to the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland in the long term.”
But she acknowledges that there could be a gap in time between the UK’s withdrawal and the establishment of the future relationship.
We can, in this House, recognise that the UK’s problems with the Irish border can only be fully resolved by a combination of both the Withdrawal Agreement and the Future Relationship.
But we have, with good reason, sought for a backstop to be part of the exit agreement, just in case the future relationship between the UK and the EU ends up being relatively distant, like Canada or trading on WTO rules.
In the absence of a backstop agreement, such a trading relationship would involve a controlled border between the UK and EU, which would imply unacceptable border infrastructure between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
Yet the very existence of a backstop agreement, and the UK commitment to preserving stability and continuity in Northern Ireland, narrows the scope of what kind of future UK-EU relationship is actually possible.
If the UK keeps faith with the Good Friday Agreement, then trading on WTO or Canada style terms is essentially impossible.
Unless, of course, one set of rules to apply to Britain and a different set of rules for Northern Ireland.
That would permit a wider variety of final outcomes in terms of the Future Relationship.
But the DUP have ruled it out.
The influence of the DUP is an important consideration.
A number of prominent DUP politicians, including their leader Arlene Foster, have proclaimed that ‘no deal’ is the most likely result.
More fundamentally, they have made it clear that their support in Westminster is contingent on a deal that is to their liking.
Their resistance to relatively mundane checks on goods from Britain across the Irish Sea has further narrowed the possible scope of sensible solutions to the backstop agreement.
And there is a risk that they will block any deal, despite the economic consequences for Northern Ireland, in order to advance their overriding political aim.
We have now reached the ‘high stakes’ moment in the negotiations.
The issue now is quite simply who carries the political risk.
Ireland’s interests means that there must be a backstop agreement in place.
That means an operable, written legal text.
If we in Ireland permit the Irish border backstop agreement to be fudged in some way, such as postponed until we deal with the Future Relationship, we take the risk that there might be a gap in time before the UK-EU trading arrangements are agreed.
And this could be a permanent gap.
In either case, temporary or permanent, there would be a hard border.
To date, Ireland and the EU negotiation team has been clear that we are unwilling to take this risk.
If the UK agrees to a bespoke backstop agreement for Northern Ireland as part of the Withdrawal Agreement, they take the risk that if the Future Relationship cannot be agreed, the differences between Britain and Northern Ireland would be deepened.
The DUP have made it clear that they are unwilling to countenance this risk.
And Theresa May has publicly spoken out against any permanent backstop for Northern Ireland.
In many plausible scenarios, the Irish border issue will fade away and the backstop arrangement will never be activated.
But that doesn’t mean we can soften our position.
Theresa May described the backstop as like insurance cover.
And Ireland’s interests need to be fully covered by that insurance, because of the real risk that it will be needed.
How big is the risk?
Theresa May appears to want a Future Relationship that keeps the UK close to the customs union and single market.
If that is the result, the Irish border issue will disappear.
But we can’t even say that her objective is shared by her Cabinet.
And it is unlikely that there is a majority in the British Parliament to back such a deal, unless it passes the six tests set by Labour.*
And there are those in Parliament who would be very willing to sacrifice the Good Friday Agreement if it was the only roadblock in the way of their future aspirations.
Certainly, research suggests that many of those in England who voted Leave would be quite happy to dismiss the Irish border question.
The bottom line is that it is not enough for the Government to wait-and-see.
It is not enough for the Government to express their confidence in the EU negotiation team.
But we need a rock solid guarantee that the Irish border will remain open.
This should have been settled months ago.
Instead the border is now the only block on the completion of the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement.
All the pressure will be on Ireland to compromise.
We must not compromise on our determination to maintain an open border Northern Ireland in any and every eventuality.
*Starmer’s six tests for the Brexit deal are:
1. Does it ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU?
2. Does it deliver the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union?
3. Does it ensure the fair management of migration in the interests of the economy and communities?
4. Does it defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom?
5. Does it protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime?
6. Does it deliver for all regions and nations of the UK?