The prime minister must seriously explore how alternative arrangements can unlock the Irish border issue
As experts from all sides rally, we must look at the alternatives, writes Graham Brady
Once Brexit happens, people will lose interest in the ‘Brady amendment’ which as of today remains the only positive motion relating to our withdrawal from the EU to have secured a majority in the House of Commons. In the meantime, it was a pleasure to be asked to join a Policy Exchange panel on the Irish backstop, part of their series on ‘What do we want from the next Prime Minister?’ Those unkind souls who complained that my amendment was devoid of any detailed prescription for the alternative arrangements would (depending on their outlook) be either thrilled or dismayed to find a panel that included not just Andrew Adonis and myself but some actual experts on the politics of Ireland too. Paul Bew and Ray Bassett had both been intimately involved in the drafting of the Good Friday agreement on opposite sides of the table so their common position that the backstop both could and should be changed was compelling. Lord Bew’s recent Policy Exchange paper made a powerful case that the backstop is fundamentally incompatible with the principle of consent – the bedrock on which the Good Friday agreement is founded. Bew went on to express his incredulity at the willingness of some of the anti-Brexit establishment in the media and at Westminster to discount the views of some of the heavyweight international customs experts whose work underpins Prosperity UK’s Alternative Arrangements Commission. The commission is now deeply engaged in putting forward concrete proposals for maintaining a free-flowing Irish border. The work of the Alternative Arrangements Commission, especially in the context of Bew’s argument that the backstop undermines the Good Friday agreement, exposes the lazy assertion that the backstop is the only way to ensure a border without physical barriers. We can now demonstrate that there is an answer to the riddle of the Irish border: the only question is whether there is a political will to pick it up and run with it. For her part, Arlene Foster expressed enthusiasm both for an alternative solution and for a determined reaffirmation of the benefits of the union when a new prime minister is in place. This must proceed hand-in-hand with the rebuilding of the UK/Ireland relationship which has now lurched from the golden age of the Queen’s State Visit to the depths of mistrust and irritation.
If the government had taken forward the work of its own Alternative Arrangements Working Group – set up immediately after the passage of my amendment on 29 January this year – things could have been so different. The working group was itself a miracle of party cohesion, bringing together Conservatives ranging from Robert Buckland to Steve Baker. Given the proper resource and backing, it could have produced the credible proposals that might have unlocked the withdrawal agreement before 29 March. Both candidates for No 10 now accept that the backstop must be dealt with and they both recognise that the future relationship envisaged in the political declaration must be one that is based on a far-reaching free trade agreement and not on the complicated customs arrangements originally proposed. The new prime minister’s efforts to drive the UK forward to independent democratic government by the end of October will occupy countless column inches and thousands of hours of footage. Whether we leave with a deal or no deal, before Hallowe’en or after, with a variant of the withdrawal agreement or with something new – the alternative arrangements to minimise disruption at the Irish border will be key.
Sir Graham Brady is Conservative MP for Altrincham and Sale West
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