It should come as no shock to anyone following the Brexit vote that the British government’s position paper on Northern Ireland and Ireland is both short on specifics and demonstrates what little understanding that Tory Ministers have of the recent history of Northern Ireland and the peace process.
The document opens with a none too subtle misreading of the Good Friday Agreement, specifically on the principle of consent, that underpins many of the erroneous presumptions of the latter sections.
The Good Friday Agreement clearly states that the two Governments recognise:
“…that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination on the basis of consent, freely and concurrently given, North and South, to bring about a united Ireland, if that is their wish, accepting that this right must be achieved and exercised with and subject to the agreement and consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland”
The wording here is precise and was hard negotiated and reflects the complex nature of relationships North and South.
It is deeply disappointing therefore to see Section 6 of the British government position paper attempt to restate the principle of consent as just one sided, crudely stating:
“…that Northern Ireland’s constitutional status is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland alone to determine.”
The word “alone” is a lazy and incompetent misreading of one of the key underpinnings of the Good Friday Agreement and should not be allowed stand unchallenged in an official UK government position paper. It is also ironic for this British government to belabour this point in a paper which justifies taking Northern Ireland out of the EU against the freely expressed will of the majority of voters there.
Since the Brexit result we have heard Prime Minister May, Northern Secretary Brokenshire, and other British Ministers talk about their commitment to the Common Travel Area and their desire to see as smooth and frictionless a border as possible.
It is, as Guy Verhofstadt has stated, a fantasy to pretend that there can be a free and frictionless border between the two parts of this island while the Westminster Government remains intent on pulling Britain out of the Customs Union.
The British position paper on Ireland should be read alongside the previous one on customs and trade. The two are linked, indeed the sequenced publication of the papers suggests that one is contingent on the other.
This, effectively, makes Northern Ireland a bargaining chip in the UK’s negotiations with the EU27. The British government is saying: “give us what we want on customs and trade or we will make you re-impose the border”. All in the guise of pretending that they are opposed to it. It is shameful.
While the Irish government has an obligation to mitigate the hugely negative impact that a British exit from the Customs Union will have on the border region, it cannot be expected to assist the British government in undermining the Good Friday Agreement and turning the clock on community relations back three or four decades.
Customs posts, be they real or virtual, are unacceptable.
There is no such thing as a technological solution to a political problem.
I do not want any form of border across this island. If Teresa May, David Davis, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and Michael Gove really want a Border, then they will to run it down the middle of the Irish Sea.
Brexit is a wanton act of vandalism against the Good Friday Agreement and an affront to the majority of voters in Northern Ireland, especially younger voters, who opposed Brexit and want to retain their relationship with the EU.
I believe that the Irish Government should now publicly reserve the right to vote against any Withdrawal Treaty that attempts to reinstate even the slightest hint of a border, or that disrupts services and trade across this island.
While we do not have a veto on the Withdrawal Treaty, as it is decided by a qualified majority of the EU-27, we will have a veto on any comprehensive EU-UK Treaty on the New Arrangements post-Brexit.
This is not the kind of action that any Irish government would wish to pursue against a friendly neighbour, but Mrs May’s confusion and recklessness is not intended to be friendly. She is leaving us with no option – the peace and progress made on this island was too hard won to be allowed to suffer at the hands of the Tory party’s political incompetence.