By NICK O’HEAR.
I AM TROUBLED by the Irish backstop. It seems that we can only leave the EU if Northern Ireland effectively stays in, but what does this say about the fragility of peace in Ireland? Does a border of some description risk a return to the murderous campaign of the IRA or to the equally ghastly response of the Ulster Volunteer Force and all the other vile groups? This risk is an important consideration. Small wonder it remains paramount in the minds of negotiators as they work through this most complex area of Brexit discussions.
Irish memories go back a long time; to Cromwell, to the potato famine of the 1840’s, to 1916 and 1921. They remember the cruelty, the fact that the English landlords exported Irish grain for profit when a million were dying of starvation. There were many wrongs in Ireland but not only by the British. More recently the IRA committed atrocities including bombings and assassinations. They were quite prepared to execute people in their homes, in front of their wives and children. If they weren’t up for an execution then knee capping was the order of the day.
The Good Friday Agreement is often quoted to insist that there should be no hard border between Northern and Southern Ireland. The Agreement is not so specific but it does mandate that citizens of both North and South have the right to live and work anywhere in Ireland. This means that people should be able to travel without hindrance between North and South. It is not the same for goods; trade and commerce are not specifically dealt with by the Agreement. Nonetheless the Agreement makes many references to both countries being in the EU as well as to the European Convention on Human Rights. It seems to me that these references are helpful to the Agreement and introduce a degree of neutrality to issues that might otherwise be polarised or contentious.
Brexit does to some extent undermine this notion of third party neutrality but that does not mean that the EU has any role in resolving the possible problem. The Agreement is very specific on how differences should be dealt with. The British-Irish Council was formed for this purpose.
- A British-Irish Council (BIC) will be established under a new British-Irish Agreement to promote the harmonious and mutually beneficial development of the totality of relationships among the peoples of these islands.
- The BIC will exchange information, discuss, consult and use best endeavours to reach agreement on co-operation on matters of mutual interest within the competence of the relevant Administrations. Suitable issues for early discussion in the BIC could include transport links, agricultural issues, environmental issues, cultural issues, health issues, education issues and approaches to EU issues. Suitable arrangements to be made for practical co-operation on agreed policies.
This then is the body to deal with the border and any other Anglo-Irish issue relating to Brexit. Under the Agreement there is no role for the EU in dispute resolution. There is no reason to suppose that the BIC will not find simple practical solutions. There is good will on both sides. The EU Commission is not the right body to deal with this. The Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, must know this yet continues to insist that the EU impose a backstop. This would prevent the completion of Brexit until the border issue is resolved. Politicians should read the Agreement and stick to it.
Unfortunately, the Agreement has become a political football in the Brexit negotiations. This is strongly supported by the EU and by Leo Varadkar.
Trade between the UK and Southern Ireland is important to both countries and, depending on the Brexit agreement, may cease to be frictionless. Pat McCormack, the head of the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Association (ICMSA) has complained that the “weight of consideration” being given to the Border question in the Brexit negotiations to the detriment of the more significant Ireland-UK “west-east” trading relationships.
It is time to drop the contentious Irish backstop and look to the BIC to bring sense and good will to the really important issue; trade.
Nick O’Hear is chairman of Tension Technology International, Ltd., based in Schoonhoven, The Netherlands.