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Nick Clegg: Brexiters wanted to ‘take back control’ but we risk losing control of Ireland if we’re not careful

March 30, 2018 1:10 PM
By Nick Clegg
Originally published by South Lincolnshire Liberal Democrats

Nick CleggThis week, on a visit to Dublin with Michael Heseltine and Andrew Adonis, I found myself in the Irish Department of Finance. Black and white photographs of former ministers line the walls.

Among them is Michael Collins, who led a bloody insurgency against British rule and ultimately negotiated a treaty, in 1921, which led to near-independence for most of Ireland, but also the partitioning of the mostly unionist north east, which became Northern Ireland and remained in the UK.

In many ways we have been working out the difficulties and tensions in our relationship ever since.

How to deal with the Irish question tormented successive British prime ministers. Yet when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was formed in 2010, David Cameron and I were handed a precious inheritance.

The Good Friday Agreement, an international treaty, underpinned by common European Union membership, had been signed in the spring of 1998.

It created a power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland and performed the delicate balancing trick of removing the Republic's territorial claim over Northern Ireland while still allowing people there to identify as Irish, British or both - and claim citizenship as such.

The border became less relevant in people's minds. Improved security and the decline of para-militarism removed the need for military checkpoints - but it was EU integration that removed the customs posts.

The people of Ireland don't need Sinn Fein to stand up against Brexit. They need MPs of all parties to do the right thing I was lucky. The Good Friday Agreement meant the Irish question was not one I, as deputy prime minister, had to grapple with in the all consuming way previous Governments had.

Now, extraordinarily, the current incumbent of 10 Downing Street seems prepared to open it up once again.

Why does this matter? Because our countries, and their peoples, are intimately connected. We are more than simply neighbouring countries, there are intense bonds of family, culture - and, yes, history.

The distance between Holyhead to Dublin is around 50 miles, Stranraer to Belfast closer to 20, and for thousands of years, people have made the journey, in both directions, across the Irish Sea - including two British prime ministers who were born in Ireland.

According to the 2001 census, one in four Britons claim Irish heritage, with the same census showing that more than 800,000 people born in Ireland were living in Great Britain at that time.

Official figures suggest that there were up to 3.7 million visits from the UK to Ireland last year. Even if you don't have an Irish relative or ancestor, everyone reading this article will have a friend in, or from, the island of Ireland.

It is the same in the other direction: almost all the Irish politicians and business leaders Michael Heseltine, Andrew Adonis and I met this week have relatives in Britain, have studied and worked in Britain, and continue to visit regularly.

Brexit is a burden on Ireland

We also share responsibility for a precious peace in Northern Ireland. But too many ministers, including the Prime Minister, have treated these obligations as inconvenient obstacles on the way to the hardest of Brexits.

It was the same situation during the referendum, when leading Brexiteers were quick to dismiss any concerns about the Irish border.

But there is no avoiding the obvious consequences of the British government's determination to interpret the 2016 referendum result as a mandate to take the UK out of the Single Market and the Customs Union.

Doing so will see a land border created between the EU and the UK for the first time, and if the tariffs, standards and regulations adopted by the UK diverge from that of the EU, then a working border, with customs checks, will be unavoidable.

How to deal with the Irish question tormented successive British prime ministers Brexit has placed an intolerable burden on the island of Ireland.

The Republic of Ireland didn't ask for it. The people of Northern Ireland, the majority of whom backed remaining in the EU, didn't vote for it.

The economic consequences are painfully apparent. Above all - as was repeated to us by everyone we met - no Irish Government of any political persuasion could risk a return to border controls.

It would have a profound effect on the social, economic and political equilibrium established in the island of Ireland which had been so carefully assembled by previous Irish and British Governments.

Johnson speaks

Theresa May insists that she would never allow such a retrograde step.

But Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, was rather more candid when, in a leaked memo to the prime minister, he told her that the government's role should be to minimise border checks, rather than keep the border free of them altogether.

The only way to avoid a hard border is for Northern Ireland to retain EU customs and single market arrangements, but to do so would mean that the UK's border with the EU shifts to the Irish sea.

That outcome is unacceptable to the DUP - the Brexit-supporting party whose 10 MPs give Mrs May the majority she needs to govern at Westminster. It is an insoluble situation, however much Brexiteers waffle about non-existent technological solutions or, disgracefully, try to pass responsibility onto Ireland and the EU.

So with the Prime Minister too weak to do the right thing for Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement is in grave danger. The question was sidestepped once again when the UK secured a conditional agreement on a transition period with the EU earlier this week.

But it cannot be ducked for much longer. The stakes - of peace and stability in the island of Ireland - could not be higher. If the Government is unable or unwilling to act wisely, then MPs must place this at the forefront of their minds when they come to vote on the government's final Brexit deal towards the end of this year.

Parliamentary arithmetic

For people like me, who believe the only way out of this Brexit mess is for Parliament to reject that deal, the question is one of arithmetic: will there be enough MPs courageous enough to do so?

One solution, which has been mooted, is for Sinn Fein, whose MPs historically abstain from taking their seats, to send their MPs to Westminster and vote against the deal.

I would urge them to stay away. Their presence would create a ferocious reaction amongst other parties and many MPs would, unsurprisingly, find it difficult to line up in the same lobby as Sinn Fein. The presence of six anti-Brexit Sinn Fein MPs would, I fear, lose as many votes as it would gain.

Instead, the House of Commons as it is must make the right judgement for the country. That includes the MPs who remember the Troubles, the ministers who inherited the Good Friday Agreement, and the parliamentarians whose constituents' friends and relatives travel freely across a peaceful Ireland today.

Those who called for Brexit said we had to take back control, but instead we risk losing control of a carefully and painstakingly structured peace in Northern Ireland and an invisible border.

The people of Ireland don't need Sinn Fein to stand up against Brexit. They need MPs of all parties to do the right thing.

When the Queen visited Dublin on an historic state visit in 2011, she eloquently acknowledged the weight of our shared history, pointing to "things we wish had been done differently or not at all". MPs have the chance to avoid adding a hard Brexit to that list of regrets.