Now that the Tory government have shamefully supported removing the so-called Irish backstop from the EU withdrawal agreement, it is more critical than ever that the Labour Party stands against the Government’s capitulation to the DUP and the Jacob Rees-Mogg hardliners and defends the peace and progress of the Good Friday Agreement that Brexit threatens.
As reported in last week’s Irish World, the Labour Party Irish Society annual general meeting last month voted overwhelmingly to support a public vote as the only way of breaking the current deadlock – so our view is clear. There is no better deal than the one we have at the moment with Britain and Ireland both in the European Union.
I believe that is why the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. The overwhelmingly positive impact of the EU allowed normality to flourish in Northern Ireland in a way we could only have dreamed of in difficult days gone by.
However, if we are to Brexit, the backstop offers vital protections to communities on the border, provides certainty and stability, and a guarantee that there will not be a return of a border on the island of Ireland.
The tragedy of this moment is that Northern Ireland is experiencing a democratic deficit that could not be worse timed. Without Stormont working and without an official Irish voice in Westminster, there is a critical vacuum in the political representation of Northern Ireland.
At this critical juncture, Northern Ireland is represented only by the Democratic Unionist party, which is not representative of the people on Brexit – and so much more.
The stakes could not be higher, and the Labour party must be a strong voice of leadership and reason when it comes to standing up for the Northern Ireland Protocol in the draft withdrawal agreement. The utility of the Northern Ireland protocol has been questioned with Corbyn referring to “various issues surrounding the problems of the backstop” being raised in the meeting with May, saying it was “a problem where we go into an agreement which is one-sided.”
It is absolutely imperative that Labour MPs must recognise that any withdrawal agreement will require a backstop and that a customs union on its own does not provide sufficient protections.
The simple yet vital fact is that the backstop is an essential insurance policy that would ensure an open border unless and until this is provided for by the future UK-EU relationship.
But it is about more than preventing infrastructure at the border: it is also about protecting the Good Friday Agreement in its broadest sense.
Northern Ireland has a unique constitutional settlement within the UK so it was largely inevitable that it should have a unique Brexit settlement, as the DUP itself acknowledged in its 2017 manifesto, in which it called for “Northern Ireland-specific solutions [to Brexit] achieved through active Executive engagement.”
We strongly reject the suggestion that the backstop would damage the integrity of the United Kingdom.
Without the protections offered by the backstop, future regulatory divergence between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, in areas such as agriculture, could necessitate the return of customs checks and therefore a ‘hard border’.
This would have a devastating impact on communities across the island of Ireland, particularly border communities.
The Social Democratic and Labour party, Alliance party, Sinn Féin and the Green party all support the backstop and as a recent LucidTalk poll highlighted, with 65 per cent of people in Northern Ireland wanting to be ‘closely tied to the EU, inside the single market and the customs union’, even if the rest of the UK had a looser arrangement. This includes nearly a third of unionists.
Unfortunately, the DUP and the European Research Group’s narrative on the backstop dominates the debate, even though it is contrary to the feeling in Northern Ireland itself.
As the party that negotiated the Good Friday agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland, the Labour Party has a solemn duty to be responsible in our approach to the effects of Brexit on Northern Ireland and the Good Friday agreement – no matter how great the desire to see a change in government, we cannot forget our responsibility to the peace process and to protecting its integrity.
Labour must be unequivocal in this, because playing politics with the peace process is not an option, no matter how tempting it is to court the DUP votes and sway the balance of power in a confidence vote; it is not worth the risk to the peaceful stability across our islands.
Whatever totally legitimate criticism we want to make of the government’s deal, of which there are many; picking out the backstop is not the right one.
Claire Tighe is the vice chair of the Labour Party Irish Society and former director of Irish4Europe. The Labour Party Irish Society is the voice of the Irish community in the Labour Party as an affiliated socialist society.