The British government will not use threats of food shortages to Ireland as a way of strengthening their Brexit negotiating position, British Prime Minister Theresa May has said, rebuffing inflammatory comments made by a Tory MP last week.
Priti Patel, who suggested last week that a report stating Ireland would suffer worse food shortages than the UK in the event of a no-deal Brexit could be used as leverage to discourage the introduction of the backstop, drew widespread criticism for her remarks.
Far from a condemnation of the language used by the MP, Mrs May said during PMQs, after a question from Labour and Co-operative Party MP Jim McMahon, that she would be “happy to give the assurance” that such a tactic would not be used.
“We would not use that issue in any sense in the negotiating strategy. We want to work with the Irish government to ensure that we are providing a good Brexit for the UK and a good Brexit for Ireland,” she said in the Commons.
McMahon had asked Mrs May, who will take on a no-confidence vote later today, to condemn such suggestions in attempts to “strengthen” the UK’s position during Brexit talks.
Ms Patel’s comments – described as “either extreme callousness or ignorance” by Labour MP David Lammy – arose after a leaked report from the British government claimed Ireland would see worse food shortages than Britain in the event of the UK crashing out of the bloc.
It asserted that Ireland would likely see a drop in GDP of up to 7%, against a figure of 5% for the United Kingdom.
Speaking to The Times, Conservative MP Priti Patel said such figures should have been used in negotiations as leverage to drop the backstop – the mechanism being proposed to prevent a hard border.
“This paper appears to show the government were well aware Ireland will face significant issues in a no-deal scenario. Why hasn’t this point been pressed home during negotiations?” she said.
“There is still time to go back to Brussels and get a better deal.”
Patel, who resigned as UK international development secretary in November last year amid controversy over her unauthorised meetings with Israeli officials, caused a scathing reaction online and from Irish and British officials for her remarks.
She has since claimed that the comments she made “have been taken out context”.
Anna Soubry, a Pro-EU Tory MP campaigning for a People’s Vote, offered her apologies to Ireland for her party’s actions today.
“I can only apologise to your listeners for what my country and my party has been doing for the last few years,” she told RTE. “Not even the Conservative party could be so politically irresponsible at this critical stage with the most important decision since the end of World War 2.”
Last week, EU agriculture commissioner Phil Hogan said that a tactic Patel alluded to would, in fact, lead to “the starvation of the British people” due to Ireland’s food production surplus with the UK.
Ireland imports more than €4 billion in food from the UK each year which constitutes just under half of all food imports. Irish food exports to the UK, however, exceed €5 billion.
Hogan added that Patel’s comments exposed “how much out of touch” Patel is.
According to the Global Food Security Index, Ireland has become the second most food secure nation in the world for 2018, exporting most of its produce, a fall in one place from the world’s most secure food nation last year.
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs, said that Patel’s comments are the latest example of the “ridiculous carry-on from an MP from a neighbouring state and ally”.
Mary Lou McDonald, the leader of Sinn Féin, maintained that Patel should apologise for the “hurtful remarks”.
“I think that statement was, for obvious historical reasons, very distasteful,” Ms Lou McDonald said. “It also belies a really reckless and almost juvenile mentality.”
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon argued that Patel’s comments illustrated the “sheer moral bankruptcy” of the Conservative MPs who remain supportive of Brexit.
The Irish government reportedly began extensive preparations for all Brexit scenarios, including in the food sector, shortly after the referendum result.
It remains unclear what part of the UK government produced the report and it’s veracity and implications have been widely dismissed by Irish officials.