Lord Bew: The Irish border question destroyed May’s premiership

Posted On: 
15th July 2019

May Days: Theresa May never quite understood how to build on the success of the Brady amendment, says Lord Bew

An anti Brexit sign in the village of Jonesborough, on the border between Dundalk in the Republic of Ireland and Newry in Northern Ireland.
PA Images

The collapse of power-sharing government in Northern Ireland is not remotely the fault of Theresa May. The faults were local to the province and reflect badly on the political class on both sides in Stormont. The “confidence and supply” deal she struck with the DUP in 2017 has its critics but it is, in principle, no different from Gordon Brown’s attempt to strike the same deal and save his premiership in 2010.

But the paradox of May’s premiership is clear. No one doubts the sincerity of her defence of what she calls “the precious union”. In particular, she saw the absurdity of any form of Brexit which brought about the disintegration of the United Kingdom. Yet from the moment she unveiled the Withdrawal Agreement it was a racing certainty that the Irish backstop would destroy her premiership.

The collapse of the UK’s negotiating position embodied in the DExEU document of August 2017 has yet to be full analysed, though Tom McTague has thrown important light on the surprise of EU officials that we conceded so much so easily in the Irish context.

Suffice to say we ended up with a Withdrawal Agreement marked by explosive internal contradictions – before we even talk of its external contradictions with Sajid Javid’s recent border security legislation or our own commitments alongside the Irish to the United Nations security council resolution 1373.

If it was the best of both worlds for Northern Ireland, as the prime minister allowed herself to say, why would you want it to be only temporary? If it was designed to protect (indeed not to affect in any way, according to the Tusk-Juncker letter) the Good Friday agreement, why did it appropriate some of its key functions in animal health and food safety without so much as a by your leave?

Functions which required the explicit endorsement of the Northern Ireland assembly were placed under the control of a new external, top-down body to be driven above all by EU requirements sans any democratic control by the people of Northern Ireland.

Why do we commit ourselves to promote an all-Ireland economy – which does not exist except in agri-food – when the Good Friday agreement does not and, indeed, that agreement was based on the explicit statement by both the Irish and British governments that there were two economies on the island of Ireland?

Above all there is the mapping exercise of the alleged EU role in promoting cross-border activity which is presented in the protocol as providing the rationale for the backstop. But in a sign of changing times, the government has acceded to a freedom of information request and published the mapping exercise in full. Then, quite remarkably, the mapping exercise was systematically stripped of all credibility in the Irish Times, not by Brexiteer ideologues, but by two of the leading figures of Ireland’s liberal left and Europhile intelligentsia – Newton Emerson and Andy Pollak.

There was one moment when Theresa May had real hope of survival and that was when parliament passed the Brady amendment in a debate which was heavily influenced by concerns that the backstop threatened the Good Friday agreement and the best type of genuine cross-border cooperation in Ireland.

Theresa May never quite understood how to build on the success of the Brady amendment. The new prime minister cannot afford to repeat that error. The sharpening and the revitalisation of the themes of the Brady debate should be the new government’s first port of call.

Lord Bew is a crossbench peer