TWO weeks from today – Thursday, March 2 – the electorate of the north will be going to the polls. The future of the political institutions, and of the Good Friday Agreement, the allegations of corruption within the RHI scheme, and the need for integrity and respect within those institutions, are for Sinn Féin the core themes of the election campaign.
So too is the issue of Brexit. At a very well attended and successful United Ireland conference in Dublin three weeks ago, I warned that Brexit would destroy the Good Friday Agreement. That it was a hostile action by the British government. British sources were quick to dismiss my concerns. The Irish government was also dismissive. Why? Because each time Taoiseach Enda Kenny speaks to or meets the British Prime Minister Theresa May she assures him that the British are 100 per cent behind the GFA. And he accepts this without question.
May visited Dublin at the end of January and spoke of a “frictionless” and “seamless” border, and of no-one wanting to return to the borders of the past. Meaningless waffle. Kenny parroted her claims with no evidence to show how this could be achieved. On the contrary, there is very clear evidence that Brexit on British terms will see the imposition of a hard economic border on the island of Ireland. Last week, for example, the select committee at Westminster, which has been holding hearings on the impact of Brexit on the border, heard from Michael Lux and Eric Pickett, two EU customs and international trade experts.
Lux told the committee that post-Brexit the border would become a European border between the EU and a non-EU member and that all goods would be subject to the European customs code on the Irish side.
But if there was ever any doubt about the threat Brexit poses to the Good Friday Agreement then it emerged last Wednesday night. The British Parliament spent hours debating a whole series of amendments to the Brexit Bill that will allow Theresa May to trigger Article 50. This will clear the way for the Brexit negotiations between Britain and the EU to commence.
Among the amendments was one which would have blocked any change to the Good Friday Agreement arising from the Brexit negotiations. The Conservative Party, the DUP, the Ulster Unionist Party (favoured partner of the SDLP), UKIP, and the MP for Bexley and Sidcup, James Brokenshire – the British Secretary of State for the north – combined to vote it down. So much for the assurances of the British government that the Good Friday Agreement is sacrosanct. No great surprise for those like me who know that British governments always act in their own national self-interest and don’t give a tuppenny damn about the north. And as for those who think that attending Westminster makes a difference – well, they got their answer on Wednesday evening.
The Westminster vote also shows the short-sightedness of the Taoiseach’s approach, which is to play the part of junior partner to the British government.
So things have to change. If the island of Ireland is to avoid a serious economic crisis arising from Brexit the Irish government has to produce a comprehensive negotiations strategy with clear national objectives to protect citizens, workers and key sectors across the island. It requires a credible strategy to protect Irish national self-interest. And they don’t have much time to do it. The British government’s triggering of Article 50 is now only weeks away.
Theresa May has outlined her 12 principles going into the Brexit negotiations and two weeks ago the British published their white paper. It was essentially a longer version of May’s speech containing many of the same clichés we have come to expect on this issue from both governments. It even went as far as to talk about “the strength and support of 65 million people willing us to make it – Brexit – happen.” No reference to the millions in the north and in Scotland who voted to remain.
The white paper also claims, and I quote, that the “devolved administrations are fully engaged in our preparations to leave the EU”. Our party's experience to date, having taken part in the meetings of the Joint Ministerial Committee, and from the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales, is that this is simply not true.
I have repeatedly called on the Taoiseach and Irish government to agree a strategic approach to the negotiations with clear political, economic and trade objectives that protect the interests of all citizens on the island of Ireland, defend the Good Friday Agreement, and ensures that the frontier between the EU and Britain is not on the island of Ireland.
This means upholding the democratic vote in the north to remain. It also requires the government, which is at the negotiating table, to actively campaign for the north to have a special designated status within the EU. This requires, as a matter of urgency, a white paper from the Irish government setting out its strategy and objectives in the Brexit negotiations.
To try to advance this objective I introduced last week in the Dáil the European Communities (Brexit) Bill 2017. An objective of the Bill is to preserve the rights of those citizens in the north who will remain EU citizens in the aftermath of Brexit by virtue of their Irish citizenship. The Bill also places a statutory requirement on the Taoiseach to outline the government’s approach to negotiations surrounding Brexit to the Oireachtas.
All of this is critical to the well-being and future of the Good Friday Agreement. Thus far the Irish government has failed to act decisively as co-equal guarantor of the Agreement. The dangers this presents are enormous.
We already know that the British government intends to bring an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court. It is also committed to ending its relationship with the European Convention on Human Rights. These two decisions will have profound implications for the Good Friday Agreement.
And none of this deals with the fact that citizens in the north, under the Agreement, have a right to Irish citizenship and therefore to EU citizenship. How can their rights as EU citizens be protected and realised?
In addition, there have been a succession of economic reports, including one recently by the ESRI, which warned that Brexit will cost tens of thousands of jobs.
Did you know that around 60 per cent of goods exported out of the north to the EU actually go to the south? Or that 14,000 people regularly commute across the border for work and business and education? Or that all of those trucks that cross the border every day on their way to Europe via Dublin and other ports will now face customs checks? And that non-EU trucks can take between 20 minutes to two hours to clear.
That’s a lot of jobs at risk. And a very messy process. That’s why you need to use your vote. It’s not all about the unacceptable behaviour of the DUP, although that is central. It’s also about sending a clear message to the Irish government. It’s about the future. So vote. And vote wisely.