Whether the UK leaves the EU with or without a deal is a matter of huge consequence, but one which none of us, except for a very small group of politicians and policy makers, have any control over. The irony is that the consequences of Brexit will affect every single one of us. Clearly, I’m stating the obvious here.
It is argued that it took almost two years to come up with what most news organisations are calling the ‘Irish backstop’ - as though the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is merely a dividing line between the two parts of this island. It was definitely that, but now, thanks to Brexit, it is no longer so simple. The border in Ireland is set to become a border between the UK and Europe. Its significance is much greater now.
The idea of the backstop is to protect the open border NI has as a result of the Belfast Agreement of 1998. Simon Coveney, the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) and Minister for Foreign Affairs of Ireland was correct when he asserted that the border issue was about much more than just economics. Much has been achieved as a result of the Belfast Agreement and the consequent opening up of the border for all sections of the Northern Irish community. The sheer arrogance of those who wold risk that progress based on nothing more substantial than blind guesswork is astonishing.
November 2018's Withdrawal Agreement could not have been published without first being signed off by the Prime Minister. Last week I wrote that the Prime Minister seemed to be the only politician in the Commons trying to protect the Belfast Agreement. I was wrong on a number of counts.
Within a day or two of my writing, the Prime Minister abandoned her stance and is now headed back to Brussels to ask for the backstop to be altered. I was also wrong to make that assertion because I overlooked the valiant interventions by Independent Unionist politician Lady Sylvia Hermon. I would apologise to her for that because she has been steadfast in trying to navigate these issues by representing the overwhelming view here in Northern Ireland that the backstop is not the end of the Union as some would have us believe.
She has quite rightly pointed out that the backstop would only come into force if the United Kingdom and the European Union fail to agree their ongoing trading and political relationship during the transition period. She is a voice of moderation and compromise - and those two together have been the hallmark of the success of the Belfast Agreement.
Objections led mainly by the DUP supported by the Brexiteer elements of the Tory Party have strenuously objected to those sections of the Withdrawal Agreement that deal with the border on the Island of Ireland. This has become such an explosive issue that the risk of Britain leaving the EU without any agreement in place is looming large. No one really believes that such an outcome would be good for anyone. Equally, no one knows what would actually happen if the dreaded no-deal scenario became a reality.
Northern Ireland and, by extension, the Republic of Ireland, now find themselves increasingly drawn into this shambles by those most in favour of Brexit in a manner that is actually quite shameful. The entire Brexit discussion now revolves around the backstop. It is deeply frustrating that many now seem to have either forgotten or completely ignore the fact the backstop was agreed by the Prime Minister and her cabinet after months of tumultuous negotiations. It was an accommodation that both the British and the EU signed up to.
Anyone involved in managing change knows, with certainty, that if you do not bring your key stakeholders with you, you will fail at the critical moment. This is what seems to have happened. The DUP were never going to agree to the backstop. Given that the government was in political debt to the DUP to the large extent that they were, one is left wondering what the game plan was.
One hears noises allegedly coming from Europe that the British need to sort out the mess but Brexiteers seem incapable of doing so and so does the government. It is little wonder that there is increasing frustration in Europe. Remarks made by Donald Tusk regarding those who “promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan on how to carry it out safely” are understandable but ultimately unhelpful. They serve only to increase the heat in an already rapidly heating conflict, something that I suspect might well suit those very hard Brexiteers. Once again, it is little wonder that ordinary people are being given yet more reasons to lose respect for politics.
The border between Northern the Republic of Ireland is a massively significant thing on this island, regardless of your political inclinations. It has caused no end of trouble and, in one way or another, it has cost many, many lives. Its presence is one of the results of British involvement on this island. But, following the Good Friday Agreement, we have learned to weave it into our daily lives and business dealings in a way that would have been unimaginable before the peace process.
In 2011, the Queen visited Ireland for a state visit that was hugely positive and successful. During her address at the state dinner, she acknowledged the troubled history between Ireland and Britain and the "sad and regrettable" mistakes made during that history. She also acknowledged the age-old strong bonds that exist between Ireland and the UK. In that regard, the Queen was referring to all of Ireland, not just the Unionist bit. And she was correct. There are so many familial, cultural and social connections between Britain and Ireland that are to be found almost everywhere you look.
Here in Northern Ireland, there are still those who would take us back in history, who seem to need some sort of victory or acknowledgement of superiority. For them, a hard Brexit might not seem like such a bad thing. For the rest of us, it would be nothing short of disastrous.
The British government played a vital and honourable role in negotiating the Belfast Agreement, as did others who were involved. It really is quite difficult to describe the collective sense of relief that most of us, regardless of politics or religion, felt when that agreement was made. A way had been found for us to share this little, and quite beautiful, space without treading on each other’s toes. And we have blossomed since. Of course, like all other regions, we have our problems, but they are nothing compared to what we lived with before.
The British government started Brexit and held a referendum and the people, regrettably, decided to leave Europe. Was it too much to expect that those charged with carrying out Brexit would know how carefully they needed to deal with this corner of the UK?
The border is no longer just a border between the two parts of this island. It is a border with Europe. Stop using us as negotiating chips in this damaging political wrangle. Either live with the backstop as was agreed, or come up with an alternative that the EU can accept. This is a problem for London to fix. Notwithstanding the change in her direction, I still believe that the Prime Minister is trying to solve this problem.
It is for others at Westminster to step up and provide the obvious help she needs.