The terms of the withdrawal agreement have divided opinions across the UK and within Parliament to the extent that the Prime Minister Theresa May was forced to defer a vote in parliament on its terms, recognising a likely defeat for the Government. With the EU restating its reluctance to renegotiate the deal, agendaNi takes the temperature of Northern Ireland’s MEP’s outlook on the agreement.
There is no such thing as a good Brexit for Ireland, north or south.
That is why the majority of people in the north – from all communities – rejected the Tory Brexit agenda at the referendum in 2016.
Since then the British Government has been in freefall with resignation after resignation and deepening splits in the Tory party.
At the start of the Brexit negotiations Sinn Féin lobbied intensively in the European Parliament to raise awareness of the hugely negative impact Brexit would have on Ireland.
As a result of that diplomatic offensive the European Parliament passed successive resolutions calling on the EU negotiators to secure a deal which avoided a hard border on the island of Ireland and protected the Good Friday Agreement in all of its parts.
In doing so they recognised the unique political, geographical and historic circumstances of the north.
Now, more than 900 days since the referendum, we have a deal on the table in the form of the withdrawal agreement.
There is no deal which would result in a good Brexit for Ireland. What we have now in the withdrawal agreement is the least worst option.
It includes the backstop avoids the imposition of physical infrastructure and prevents our economy from being driven off a cliff by the Tories and their DUP allies.
But it is far from perfect. It does not include protections for the rights of people in the north.
The first right people in the north will lose is the fundamental democratic right to directly elect representatives to the European Parliament.
The Irish Government, which previously gave commitments to the people in the north that they would never again be left behind by an Irish government, had an opportunity to do something about this by allocating its two additional MEP seats to the north. It failed to do so.
All commitments given and agreements entered into by the British Government, the Irish Government and the EU must be honoured.
Irish interests must be defended in all Brexit negotiations. There can be no rolling back in what has already agreed and there can be no hard border, no diminution of rights and no undermining of the Good Friday Agreement.
That is what Sinn Féin will work to continue to ensure.
To those of us in politics, deals and deadlines, negotiations or big votes have become as much a Christmas tradition as mince pies and tinsel, if much less cheerful.
Nevertheless, there is work to be done. At Westminster our DUP MP’s are at the coalface, while others refuse to take their seats. We have long said the backstop, and with it the withdrawal agreement, is fundamentally flawed; intolerable to anyone with the interests of the union at heart. Commentators acknowledge we have consistently warned the Prime Minister of this yet she has often seemed to continue steering her ship towards the rocks, despite telling the Common’s “no British Prime Minister could even sign up to” such a backstop.
Under the agreement the UK as a whole would form a single customs territory, but arrangements concerning the future are fundamentally different for Northern Ireland. While Great Britain would have freedom to diverge in future, Northern Ireland would not. We would remain in the customs union in all but name, subject to the entire suite of regulations and under ECJ jurisdiction whether or not the rest of the UK persists with the same. We would do so without any direct influence on the rules by which we must live. This is the worst of all worlds.
The UK would have no means of leaving this backstop unilaterally. So states the Government’s own Attorney General in legal advice the Government tried to suppress. He warned not only of being trapped in the backstop “unless and until” the EU27 agree otherwise, but also a future scenario where Great Britain must treat Northern Ireland as a “third country”, with checks on any goods coming here from the mainland. Not only would this undermine our nation constitutionally, it is economically illogical in placing barriers between Northern Ireland and our main market.
We are told the primary purpose is to avoid a hard border, yet Leo Varadkar and Michel Barnier assure the Irish that even in a no deal situation there would be no hard border. The Prime Minister insists the backstop is bad for the EU and her Chancellor states that neither Brussels nor Dublin want it. Why then are we persisting with such folly in the face of a significant cross-party majority in parliament opposing the deal?
Progress can yet be made if the Prime Minister chooses to listen, but the DUP are not so naïve that we will accept warm words as protection against legally enforceable treaties. For any solution to be viable safeguards must be concrete, as warm words we have too often found to be as firm as drifting sands.
We are at a moment that will prove pivotal in the nation’s history. Thus far, the Government has insisted that the only options are the Prime Minister’s deal, or no deal. Neither of those options are acceptable.
Under the terms of the backstop, key decisions relating to Northern Ireland would be taken not by locally elected representatives at Stormont, nor even by our own Government at Westminster, but by 27 other Governments without our formal input or say. Any oversight will be from a small committee made up of EU and UK appointees. That is unprecedented.
Similarly, a ‘no deal’ exit would have serious implications for our economy.
I have no doubt there are sincere unionists even in the cabinet who in their gut know this deal is bad for the union and bad for the country. My message to those individuals is: trust your instincts, push for a better deal, do not jeopardise the integrity of the UK simply for the sake of getting something over the line.
We are not talking about something that can be corrected in the future after it is agreed. This will become a legally binding international treaty. Against that, no commitment from this government nor any government will have the same weight.
I have a lot of respect for our Prime Minister. This is not about personalities but it is about principles. Any deal involves compromises, but as the Government’s own legal advice spells out, the Northern Ireland backstop is a step too far. Theresa May herself once said no UK Prime Minister could accept a customs or regulatory border down the Irish Sea – that is as true now as it was then, and in her heart I think she knows that.
At the time of writing Mrs May has said she would go back to Brussels to get clarifications on the backstop. But the reality is, without substantive change to the backstop within the legally binding withdrawal treaty text, any written or verbal assurances without a solid legal base are not enough.