My Lords, I spent most of last week in Northern Ireland, and I was recently also in Dublin. The threat which Brexit poses to the island of Ireland is, despite the complacency of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, very serious—potentially the most serious failure of British public policy in Ireland since the collapse of the Sunningdale power-sharing agreement in 1974.
Boris Johnson complained last week that Northern Ireland was,
“the tail wagging the dog”,
of Brexit. This is the most irresponsible statement by a former Minister in my lifetime. The reason why the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, Parliament, the European Commission and the other Governments of the European Union have all made the Irish border a critical issue is that it is a critical issue.
Boris Johnson has spent virtually no time talking to those affected. Had he done so, they would have told him, as they told me and everyone else engaged in Brexit, that peace in Northern Ireland cannot be taken for granted, that the Troubles in the 1960s started with the shooting and murder of customs officials on the north/south border in South Armagh and County Down, and that the Northern Ireland police force sees Brexit as its most serious threat. That is not because there is likely to be any immediate return of widespread terrorism—although the systematic community violence in Londonderry over the past fortnight is very worrying—but because of its fear that differential north/south customs and regulatory regimes, even if there is no physical border infrastructure, will inevitably breed mass smuggling and contraband, of which there is a long history across the Irish border. That will in turn breed illegality, organised crime linked to extremists and a big new challenge of enforcement and policing.
Lest anyone have any doubt about what all this means, I suggest they go, as I did, to the border at Newry, where the A1 Belfast/Dublin motorway passes, and talk to Damian McGenity and the many other campaigners against a new border and against Brexit. They will tell you their horrific stories of the past; they will tell you about the thousands of businesses and people who constantly trade and travel across the border; and they will take you to their huge banner across the border, containing a picture of a watchtower with the words, “Listen to our voices: no EU frontier in Ireland”.
Theresa May is contradictory about the Irish border, as is the Democratic Unionist Party, with which she is effectively in coalition. Both claim to want no hard border, yet both support a hard Brexit which will inevitably entail a new border. For Mrs May, it is because of what she calls the instruction of the British people, which she bizarrely chose to interpret as a hard Brexit, despite her own better judgment before the referendum against any Brexit. It became clear to me after hours in Stormont and other discussions last week that despite its public protestations to the contrary, the DUP strongly supports a hard Brexit precisely because, for cultural and sectarian reasons, it wants new barriers with the Republic of Ireland. Hence the DUP’s decisive vote last week in the House of Commons against a customs union, when it would have carried a customs union had it voted the other way. This, of course, comes after its refusal to restart the devolved institutions and, indeed, its bitter opposition to the Good Friday agreement.
As Prime Minister, Mrs May knows that she has basic duties to maintain the peace and to try to maintain trade. It was also starkly clear to her last December that the European Union, quite rightly, would not allow Brexit negotiations to start at all if there were not bankable guarantees against a hard border in Ireland. The upshot in the UK-EU joint report of
The problem for Mrs May—indeed, the Achilles heel of Brexit—is that this backstop is, at one and the same time, utterly essential and totally unviable if the rest of the United Kingdom undertakes a hard Brexit that involves leaving the European customs union and single market. It is unviable for a perfectly simple reason, which it took Arlene Foster and the DUP leadership about 30 seconds to work out: if the backstop applies to Northern Ireland but not to the rest of the United Kingdom, and the United Kingdom leaves the customs union and the single market, there will have to be a hard internal border in the United Kingdom, down the Irish Sea. For this reason, amidst great crisis last December, the DUP extracted a last-minute concession from Mrs May that there would be no internal UK tariffs or customs controls—a concession which, amidst equal crisis in the House of Commons last week, the Government had to agree to enshrine into law. If, however, there can be no border down the Irish Sea, how is it possible to leave the customs union and the single market while Ireland, north and south, does not do so? The answer is: it is totally impossible.
Boris Johnson wishes that this unviable problem would simply go away and wants Theresa May to walk away from her solemn Irish commitments—just as he has walked away from the Foreign Office and all his promises on Brexit. However, this cannot be done by the Prime Minister if she is to retain any shred of credibility and honour. She is, however, coming close to it. In Belfast last week, as a constant companion of Arlene Foster, Mrs May said, as is now ritualistic, that,
“there can never be a hard border … Anything that undermines that is a breach of the spirit of the Belfast agreement”.
Equally ritualistically, she said,
“we could never accept … a new border within the United Kingdom”.
She then, however, went on to attack the very backstop arrangement to prevent an Irish border that she had agreed to last December. The precise words that she used are very important for the House to note. She said that,
“the Commission’s proposed ‘backstop’ text does not deliver … The economic and constitutional dislocation … is something I will never accept”.
So the Prime Minister is saying that she will never accept what she has already accepted and that the backstop, which is there precisely to avoid unacceptable economic dislocation, is now unacceptable to her and to the DUP, precisely because she does want to bring about the very economic and constitutional dislocation which she claims to oppose.
These are very grave issues. The future prosperity and peace of the entire British Isles—Great Britain and Ireland—depend upon them. I suggest that we are not talking about the tail wagging the dog but the whole British bulldog, tail and all, being trapped in a room with no exits, increasingly desperate with frustration.