As Michel Barnier visits Northern Ireland, Labour should remember this

  • As Michel Barnier visits Northern Ireland this week, we need to be bold enough to make a change

  • Chuka Umunna MP

Michel Barnier, the EU Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator, begins a two-day visit to Northern Ireland today. He started by taking part in the Irish government’s all-island forum, hosted by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his deputy Simon Coveney. The forum, attended by representatives of all the political parties, is examining the implications of Brexit.

Brexiteers and their mouthpieces in our media would do well to take note of what is said at this forum. There is a thorough misunderstanding of the Irish government’s position in the Brexit talks, as well as complacency about the UK government’s mishandling of the Irish border issue, which threatens to bring the entire Brexit talks crashing down.

Westminster is convulsed by the resignation of Amber Rudd and the aftermath today, but this is far more important.

In December 2017, the European Union’s Council gave the EU Commission its blessing to start the second phase of the Brexit negotiations on the basis that there had been sufficient progress on the main issues of the first phase, including the Irish border issue. There is a consensus in the UK House of Commons that the 1998 Good Friday Agreement settlement, which brought peace to the island of Ireland after decades of bloodshed, should be protected if Brexit occurs. A key part of that settlement was that there should be no hard border and the Irish government is adamant this should be the case – for them, this is non-negotiable.

The Labour party’s position of continuing to participate in a customs union with the EU is not considered by Dublin to sufficiently resolve the border problem because, like the Tory government, the party doesn’t officially support a policy of staying in the single market through the European Economic Area (EEA). This is a policy which many on our backbenches – me included – have been advocating. Consequently one senior figure in the Irish government told me: “Brexit will be as bad under the Labour Party as under the Tories.” If that doesn’t underline the need for Labour to separate from the Tories in terms of their Brexit position, I don’t know what does.

The government has suggested the use of new technology could resolve the issue. Last month, the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee – a select committee led by a Tory Leave supporter and which includes three DUP MPs – gave this short shrift, saying that they were “unable to identify any border solution currently in operation across the globe that would enable physical infrastructure to be avoided when rules and tariffs diverge.”

The optimum position would be for the UK not to leave the EU – that is, of course, the ultimate way to avoid this issue. However, if Brexit does happen, there is clearly no solution to the Irish border issue other than for the UK to continue to participate in the customs union and single market.

Theresa May thinks she can park the issue for the moment and there will be a deal to be done. Ministers think some resolution can be found when the withdrawal agreement between the EU and UK is finalised at the EU Council in October. But the EU has in practice given the Irish government a veto on the Irish border issue – if the Irish government is not happy with what is agreed in relation to the border, the EU will not sign off any Brexit deal.

The UK government thinks that if all other matters pertaining to Brexit have been resolved save for the border issue then the Irish government will cave in to pressure from other member states and agree to drop this demand. This will not happen – and I can explain why.

There is a distinct lack of appreciation and understanding of the Irish standpoint both in the British government and our media.

If there is a hard border, there are very real fears that there will be a return of violence. When, before the Good Friday Agreement, there was more of a border on the island of Ireland, this helped fuel the Troubles. There was extensive illegal smuggling among other things, which it is believed would return if a hard border were re-established. No decision maker on either side is prepared to risk a return to the bad old days after all the progress that has been made. It is notable that the Good Friday Agreement got 94 per cent approval in the referendum ratifying it in the Republic in 1998.

Brexiteers say that the UK is too important to Ireland as a customer of their goods, and so the Irish will relent. But let’s look into the truth behind that statement. In the 1970s, when Ireland joined what became the EU, around 50 per cent of their exports went to the UK. Now just 13 per cent of Ireland’s exports go to the UK, while over 25 per cent goes to the US and over 35 per cent goes to other EU countries. We are a significant trading partner, of course, but not so vital as we once were to them.

Some have suggested that the Irish government is being pushed around and told what to do by EU institutions determined to drive a hard bargain with the UK. This is not how it is seen from the other side of the table.

According to the EU Commission’s public opinion barometer, the Irish have more of a positive image of the EU than any other country and 80 per cent of people in Ireland are optimistic about the future of the EU. In other words, Ireland rightly considers itself an integral part of the EU. “We act as the EU27 – we are not going to tell ourselves what to do”: that’s the way it has been put to me by the Irish government.

Earlier this month, Brexit Secretary David Davis made the ludicrous claim that Sinn Fein was behind the Irish government’s no-nonsense position on the hard border. His exact words were: “We had a change of government south of the border, and with quite a strong influence from Sinn Féin, and that had an impact in terms of the approach.” It was pointed out to him that there had been no change of government, though there had been a change in Taoiseach, and the ruling Fine Gael party is not seeking a united Ireland. It’s disappointing how fundamentally he misunderstood the motivations of the Irish people.

The irony of all of this is that the prime minister does not currently have a majority in the Commons to take us out of the customs union. If the Labour front bench listens to our membership – which overwhelmingly wants to continue to participate in the single market – and changes tack on the EEA, it is increasingly likely there is no majority to leave the single market either.

Sentiment in the Commons is, for the most part, driven by a concern to protect the Good Friday Agreement. In this sense, parliament is well ahead of the Tory government in dealing with the coming impasse and much more aligned with our friends across the Irish Sea. Theresa May needs to start playing catch up.