LISTEN: Barry Gardiner says importance of Good Friday Agreement ‘played up’ in Brexit talks
Barry Gardiner has claimed that the Good Friday Agreement has been "played up" for economic and political reasons during the Brexit negotiations.
The Shadow International Trade Secretary also described the peace deal as a “shibboleth” as he suggested that a return to a hard Irish border would not lead to a return of paramilitary activity.
His comments, in a question and answer session at a thinktank in Brussels last month, appear to put him at odds with official Labour policy, which is to agree a new customs union with the EU in order to avoid a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.
Mr Gardiner initially denied making the remarks, insisting the claims were "nonsense on stilts". But a recording of the comments has now been published by the Red Roar website.
In it, the close ally of Jeremy Corbyn says: "I think we must also recognise that there are real economic reasons why people have played up the issue of the Irish border and the need to have the shibboleth of the Good Friday Agreement.
“And that is because it is hugely in the Republic of Ireland’s economic interest to make sure that there is no tariff and no external border there.”
Describing his remarks as “deeply unfashionable” he continued: “I do think that we do need to understand that there are economic reasons, there are political reasons, and they do not always concur with what we are putting forward – from all sides – as this shibboleth of the Good Friday Agreement. I think we need to actually start drilling down.”
Former Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Owen Smith, who was sacked last month over his support for a second EU referendium, branded Mr Gardiner an "ideological Brexiteer" who was willing to sacrifice the Good Friday Agreement for the sake of Brexit.
"I worked in Northern Ireland with Barry and it is remarkable that he can display so little understanding of the vital and continuing importance of the Good Friday agreement, or of the essential need to avoid any hardening of the border in Ireland,"
He said that Labour members would be “shocked” by the comments which have come to light on the 20th anniversary of the striking of the peace deal.
"It should concern people in every party and none that there now seems to be a substantial group of senior politicians – from [the Tory MEP] Daniel Hannan to Barry Gardiner – who are prepared to sacrifice the Good Friday agreement in order to deliver Brexit," he said.
Mr Gardiner, who has been in New Zealand on hioliday, did not respond to requests for comment.