By Mark Buckley
Theresa May’s speech in Belfast last Friday ripped up the agreed position on the Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ deal her government had reached with the EU-27 in December last year. This amounts to reneging on last year’s joint report, signed by both the UK and EU (pdf). It is also a betrayal of the will of the Irish people, who voted to Remain by 56% to 44%.
The crisis in the Tory party over Europe now means it cannot move forwards even to resolve its own Brexit divisions. Instead, it is trying to bulldoze backwards and re-open already agreed positions with the EU. The risk of crashing out of the EU and Single Market, and so having to apply World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules has risen because of the Tory party’s collective unwillingness to address reality. WTO rules require a customs border in Ireland.
One of May’s more outrageous claims is that Northern Ireland remaining in the Single Market and customs union would be a breach of the Good Friday Agreement. This is the direct opposite of the truth. The Good Friday Agreement provides for both greater North-South economic integration and political co-operation, as well as devolved government in the North. Forcing Northern Ireland to leave would entirely reverse that co-operation and integration, as well as clearly contravening the will of the Irish people, both North and South. It is May who is undermining the Good Friday Agreement to remain in office.
This is the logical extension of the Tories’ rotten bloc with the DUP. The N Ireland Assembly and Executive are no longer functioning, largely because of a corruption scandal involving the DUP. But the Good Friday Agreement anticipates this possibility, and provides for British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference to develop joint policy in relation to the North if the Northern institutions are not functioning. But the British government has refused to implement this aspect of the Agreement (and many more besides), while the right-wing Fine Gael minority government in Dublin has refused to press them on it.
Of course, the Tories would be unable to govern even nominally without DUP votes. The latter has no Brexit plan at all. Its sole reason for existence is a sectarian and failing project of Protestant domination over the Catholic population. Now, with the Belfast speech May is signalling her willingness to further breach the Good Friday Agreement, which was opposed by the DUP and many of her own Cabinet members on completely reactionary grounds that peace was not desirable if it also meant greater equality in Northern Ireland.
Labour is committed to the Good Friday Agreement. Jeremy Corbyn has already called for a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference as a way out of the impasse. This is the right approach, and should be convened to prevent the return of a hard border in Ireland, with all the customs and police checks that would entail. Other pressing issues arise, such as abortion rights, marriage equality, a language Act and a budget to address the renewed economic crisis in the North.
The reactionary alliance of Tories and DUP cannot be allowed to rip up all the key agreement of the last 20 years, and certainly not the Good Friday Agreement.