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Labour takes further step towards sane Brexit policy

by Denis MacShane | 27.11.2017

Denis MacShane is a former Minister of Europe and was a Labour MP for 18 years.

Can the oldest of all British political divides, Ireland, finally help take Labour over the line to understand that leaving the EU’s customs union and single market is a disaster, not only for British jobs and the tax revenue needed for decent public services, but that it can also destroy one of the last Labour government’s proudest achievements: the Northern Ireland peace process?

As Labour MPs begin to grasp how poisonous is the alliance between Theresa May’s English nationalist Brexit Tories and the unyielding Dublin-hating Ulster protestant supremacists in the Democratic Unionist Party  one can see a visible re-think. In a partial U-turn, Barry Gardiner told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that staying in the customs union and single market were not “off the table”. In July, Labour’s trade spokesman, insisted in the Guardian that we should quit both.

John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, who understands Irish politics better than most ministers and MPs and has close links with the republican nationalist politicians, north and south of the border, also gave similar hints when interviewed by the ITV’s Robert Peston. Jeremy Corbyn himself has always been sympathetic to the republican side in Irish politics.

When May agreed with the EU that the three priorities of Article 50 negotiations would include a focus on guaranteeing the Good Friday peace agreement, she had no idea that within two months she would be in a parliamentary alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP are crudely using Brexit to end the peace process with the return of British customs control border posts on the currently open border in Northern Ireland.

The Irish question overwhelmed British politics from 1860 to 1922. It is now back with a vengeance. The difference between now and a century or more ago is that today there is a Labour Party with considerable sensitivity towards Irish politics and not a little pride in ending 30 years of armed conflict and terrorism on Good Friday 1998.

And Labour’s two main leaders, Corbyn and McDonnell, have spent a life in politics sympathetic to Ireland. So the logic of that politics which is shared by all Labour MPs, bar the ultra Ulster Unionist Kate Hoey, and also endorsed by Liberal Democrats and SNP MPs, is that the UK should not risk peace in Northern Ireland by leaving the customs union. And that decision would have the bonus of being welcomed by just about every business exporting and importing into the British Isles.

The Irish question could yet wreck the whole Brexit process. After all, the Tories and DUP are set on their mad course of action. But by driving Labour to a saner policy, it could also provide an escape from some of the craziness of Brexit and conceivably end the whole sorry business.

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Edited by Hugo Dixon

4 Responses to “Labour takes further step towards sane Brexit policy”

  • The Irish border is just another very powerful argument to stay within the Single Market and Customs union. It is also very patronising by some Brexit politicians to argue that Ireland should solve the problem by leaving the EU. The Irish have become more European and there is no mood to retreat from that. The problem has been caused by the UK and it’s the Brexit politicians responsibility to tell us what the solution is. I cannot see any one other than that NI stays part of the Sg Mkt and c.u.
    If UK & Ulster politicians don’t want an internal border within the UK, the only sane choice is for the UK as a whole to stay in the Sgl Mkt and c.u.

  • The common EU membership of the UK and Ireland runs like a thread through the Good Friday Agreement. The Northern Ireland Act (implementing the GF Agreement) even bans any legislation or act by a Minister or Northern Ireland Department if it is incompatible with EU law. So brexit will mean the GF Agreement being altered. By whose authority? It is embedded by referenda on both sides of the border and is registered with the UN as as an international treaty. I think it is arguable that the UK gave up its right to UNILATERALLY leave the EU when it signed the GF Agreement and I would like to see that legally tested.

    However I do not like the inference in Mr McShane’s article that this is simply an extension of the unionist/republican struggle. Even the DUP do not want a hard border. They would of course be even more opposed to creating a new trade border between NI and GB but none of us should advocate this. A border down the Irish Sea would be an egregious breach of the the GF Agreement from a legitimate unionist point of view.

  • In reply to Alex Wilson’s comment – “If UK & Ulster politicians don’t want an internal border within the UK, the only sane choice is for the UK as a whole to stay in the Sgl Mkt and c.u.” I agree that that is the only sane choice. However, as this Government is hell-bent on leaving both the Customs Union and the Single Market there is one other choice and that is for Great Britain to untie itself Northern Ireland so that Northern Ireland can join the Republic of Ireland. The UK Government should have been aware of the impact of a possible ‘leave’ vote on the the Good Friday Agreement, as pointed out by Denis Loretto in his preceding comments, when they called the Referendum. They failed in their duty to bring it to the attention of voters then and continue to do so now.

  • @Fionnuala
    For those of us who want to uphold the Good Friday Agreement by defending the provisions that in effect removed the border as a barrier between North and South it makes no sense at all to throw the agreement in the bin and go back to the attempt to force Northern Ireland into the Republic. To be honest I very much doubt that there is much appetite for this any more in the South. They just want to be allowed to continue making a success of their own country.