Now only seven months short of the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland has moved on from the decades of The Troubles. Nevertheless, thorns continue to stick in its side. The Assembly has collapsed and Brexit threatens to bring up innumerable problems whilst simultaneously providing Sinn Fein with a rallying cry for a border poll. This appears to have now been helped by Labour’s latest Brexit position.
Whilst Labour has adopted a series of conflicting positions on Brexit, their latest suggestion for Northern Ireland takes the cake for being the most ludicrous. Owen Smith, the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, in attendance at a Sinn Fein event during the Labour Party Conference, reportedly told delegates that Northern Ireland should remain part of the EU following Brexit. He is quoted in The Times this morning as claiming, “Does it mean Northern Ireland needs to remain within the EU and as part of Britain, and with people being able to identify within Northern Ireland as Irish?…I do not see another solution that allows for a different outcome.”
The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union, and that includes Northern Ireland. The only individuals the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary’s comments will please are those to whom it was addressed, Sinn Fein. The DUP strongly backed the Leave campaign during the referendum and support the Conservatives’ position on Northern Ireland. The government has already stated that Northern Ireland will not be treated as a separate case in the Brexit negotiations. The EU has said Northern Ireland can rejoin their ranks in the event of a United Ireland. There is no suggestion, however, that they would support Labour’s latest apparent policy.
The British government has already committed itself to upholding and protecting the Good Friday Agreement, which means citizens in Northern Ireland will continue to be able to claim Irish nationality and carry an Irish passport. Owen’s desire for “people being able to identify within Northern Ireland as Irish” will continue once we leave the European Union, so there is no need for Northern Ireland to remain within the EU for this to be possible.
There is no denying that Northern Ireland is often the ‘forgotten cousin’ within the United Kingdom, something that has continued throughout the Brexit negotiations. We do not need suggestions of Northern Ireland remaining inside the EU with some ‘special status’. What we need is a unique proposition on how to deal with the Common Travel Area, prevent a return to the borders of the past and help trade between the Republic and the North continue as seamlessly as possible. Suggestions of Northern Ireland remaining within the EU after Brexit, especially from the Labour Party, will only further fuel Sinn Fein’s argument for a border poll and thereby cause more uncertainty for businesses which operate on both sides of the border.
In contrast, Theresa May met with the Taoiseach at Downing Street on Monday. According to an official spokesperson, they agreed that “maintaining the reciprocal arrangements for the Common Travel Area and the citizenship rights guaranteed by the Belfast Agreement were at heart of our approach”. The two leaders also agreed that they “will not accept any physical infrastructure at the border” and that they desired a “practical solution that allows for the most seamless possible movement of goods between the UK and EU”.
Owen Smith did not suggest any practical ways for Northern Ireland to be part of both the United Kingdom and part of the European Union. Labour’s latest Brexit policy achieves nothing other than bringing more uncertainty to Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union, and that includes Northern Ireland.