Whatever legitimate criticism we have of the government’s Brexit deal, we cannot dismiss the Irish backstop, argues Claire Tighe
The Irish backstop has oft been cited as the reason for the Tories voting down Theresa May’s deal. Leaving aside whether their opposition to the backstop is convenient or genuine, it is important to recognise why it matters and should be regarded as so much more than a bargaining piece to trade away.
If we are to Brexit, the backstop offers vital protections to communities on the border, provides certainty and stability, and a guarantee that there will not be a return of a border on the island of Ireland. It preserves the peace.
The Labour Party Irish Society annual general meeting last month voted overwhelmingly to support a public vote as the only way of breaking the current deadlock – so our view is clear. There is no better deal than the one we have at the moment with Britain and Ireland both in the European Union.
I believe that is why the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. The overwhelmingly positive impact of the EU allowed normality to flourish in Northern Ireland in a way we could only have dreamed of in difficult days gone by.
The tragedy of this moment is that Northern Ireland is experiencing a democratic deficit that could not be worse timed. Without Stormont working and without an official Irish voice in Westminster, there is a critical vacuum in the political representation of Northern Ireland. At this critical juncture, Northern Ireland is represented only by the Democratic Unionist party, which is not representative of the people on Brexit – and so much more.
The stakes could not be higher, and the Labour party must be a strong voice for Northern Ireland, including standing up for the Northern Ireland Protocol in the draft withdrawal agreement.
The intention of the backstop is to provide an insurance policy that would ensure an open border in Ireland to protect the Good Friday agreement, unless and until this is provided for by the future United Kingdom-EU relationship.
The Social Democratic and Labour party, Alliance party, Sinn Féin and the Green party all support the backstop and as a recent LucidTalk poll highlighted, with 65 per cent of people in Northern Ireland wanting to be ‘closely tied to the EU, inside the single market and the customs union’, even if the rest of the UK had a looser arrangement. This includes nearly a third of unionists. Unfortunately, the DUP and the European Research Group’s narrative on the backstop dominates the debate, even though it is contrary to the feeling in Northern Ireland itself.
But the backstop is about far more than just preventing infrastructure at the border: it is also about protecting the Good Friday agreement. Northern Ireland has a unique constitutional settlement which is why it is nonsense to suggest that the backstop would damage the integrity of the UK.
As the party that negotiated the Good Friday agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland, we have a solemn duty to be responsible in our approach to the effects of Brexit on Northern Ireland and the Good Friday agreement – no matter how great the desire to see a change in government, we cannot forget our responsibility to the peace process and to protecting its integrity.
Labour must be unequivocal in this, because playing politics with the peace process is not an option, no matter how tempting it is to court the DUP votes and sway the balance of power in a confidence vote; it is not worth the risk to the peaceful stability across our islands.
Whatever totally legitimate criticism we want to make of the government’s deal, of which there are many; picking out the backstop is not the right one.
Claire Tighe is vice-chair of Labour Party Irish Society
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