The fabric of our Union must be the core of the next Prime Minister's government
Sadly, history tells us that the Tories will put party ahead of country. The future of our United Kingdom relies on this precedent being broken, says Karin Smyth MP.
Three years on from the EU referendum, the debate about our future relationship with Europe has not only radically changed, but continues evolve. During the campaign in 2016, issues surrounding the Northern Irish border were barely mentioned; yet today the debate around how we best protect the legacy of the Good Friday Agreement is for many the defining Brexit issue.
Of course, it didn’t have to be this way. While the Vote Leave campaign were trailing around parts of the UK with their big red bus of outlandish claims, and with public debate in the UK defined by a tit-for-tat battle of scare statistics, the Irish Government was far more alert than ours about the knotty implications of a Leave vote.
Three years later, though news bulletins and Op Eds alike are full of backstops, smart border, hard borders and a heavy dose of political bluster, solutions remain thin on the ground. The issue may now be front and centre, but with grandstanding from decision makers still par for the course, the debate continues to generate more heat than light.
The shambolic Tory leadership contest exemplifies this: no answers, no solutions, and with a favourite who wears as a badge of honour a willingness to plunge Northern Ireland into a period of unprecedented uncertainty through a damaging No Deal Brexit.
The Belfast Agreement was a defining moment; not just for all those living on the island of Ireland but also for the thousands of Irish and British people born of Irish heritage. The trendy bars and celebration of Irish culture we now see across the UK is just one welcome and visible result of our two countries coming together, and underlines just how far we have come. Since the signing of the Belfast Agreement, trade, tourism and our mutual prosperity have all flourished. But this success is not set in stone, and will be lost far more easily than it was won if we become complacent.
Brexit has put a huge spoke into this wheel of progress, and now risks derailing everything both sides worked so hard to achieve. I find it astonishing that the Tories still pay no heed to Gladstone’s warning of the “coming storm” and have apparently learnt nothing in the intervening centuries. The Conservative and Unionist Party is asleep at the wheel, with the future of our union sat helpless in the passenger seat.
No matter how many unproven technological solutions to the Irish border Tories like to talk up, the reality is that the Tories are now caught up in a toxic triangle of priorities of their own making. The nexus between achieving what the ERG want from Brexit, the future of our precious union and the legacy of the Good Friday Agreement has managed to promise all things to all people with little thought to the consequences of doing so.
This lack of leadership and inability to confront the challenges in front of us has left us with a colossal problem that is not going away. Irish nationalists and unionists learnt not to trust English Toryism a long time ago. Indeed, you don’t have to be a constitutional expert to identify that the Tories’ key motivation by a clear margin has been delivering a Brexit the Conservative Party wants; rather than one that works for the UK as a whole.
We know that the Parliamentary arithmetic in the House of Commons will not change under a new Tory leader. The views that were deeply entrenched under Theresa May will be just as stubbornly held under whoever her successor is. The new Prime Minister will be boxed in with nowhere to go. So, the question we have to ask is: what are the trade-offs? There are a number of outcomes the PM could end up with.
But as our starting point, we must admit that in so many ways, the damage has been done already. Regardless of what happens next, the damage this has done to our union and the peace process is indisputable. A border poll on unification remains on the political agenda in Northern Ireland and this possibility cannot be underestimated regardless of what happens with Brexit.
The first option is no union. While Nicola Sturgeon will get on any bandwagon to bang the drum for independence, it has to be said that the devolved administrations in Wales and Scotland have been frozen out of much of the Brexit process and this has left us in a perilously divided situation. When coupled with the Northern Irish border issue, our union looks splintered and the Tories are leaving it dangerously late to reach for the glue.
The second outcome is a major undermining of the Good Friday Agreement. The next Prime Minister must put the legacy of the Belfast Agreement at the heart of the government’s next steps. When the bluster and rhetoric of the Tory leadership contest has receded, it’s essential that the Prime Minister realises just what an existential threat undermining the peace process would pose for the stability of our union.
And, amidst all the cycle of uncertainty, there remains one absolute truth – we cannot have all three. There are choices to be made, whatever the Brexit snake oil salesmen keep telling us.
Simply put, there has to be a deal of some sort brokered. This must include a long transition period or extension to the existing proposed transition period so that we reduce the likelihood of entering the backstop. The next Prime Minister must prevent Northern Ireland from being an outpost of the EU, even if this means a border in the Irish sea, for which there are plenty of precedents.
The stakes are high and our union is going to get closer to the brink if the Tories continue prioritising their own party’s interest over Brexit over the unravelling of nearly a century of our union’s history. Sadly, history tells us that the Tories will put party ahead of country. The future of our United Kingdom relies on this precedent being broken.
Karin Smyth is Labour MP for Bristol South.