Jeffrey Donaldson: 'Brexit will give this island hope, not fear, if we can bridge the 'orange and green' divide'
Dublin and Belfast have a constructive role to play in finding solutions to impasse gripping the UK parliament, writes Jeffrey Donaldson
Last week sadly brought further damaging rhetoric in the Brexit process and some who ought to be statesmanlike have been anything but. This is surely a moment for statesmanship and for finding a way through the current impasse. We must calm things down and focus on our common ground in order to develop a common sense solution to Brexit and the Irish border question. In this context, I welcome the visits of both the prime minister and the Taoiseach to Belfast and the meeting between both leaders in Dublin. This is the kind of engagement and leadership that is needed to help find a sensible way forward.
I recognise that we do not agree on Brexit itself and that many in Ireland feel hurt by the decision of the UK to leave the EU. Nevertheless, it is important we all respect democratic decisions of this nature, even when we don't agree with them.
Undoubtedly, the last two years have seen damage done to the three sets of relationships that formed the core of the Belfast Agreement. The absence of the political institutions, including the Assembly and the North South Ministerial Council, has been to the detriment of all of us. Just think how differently we might have handled this very difficult situation if such institutions had been in place to provide a forum within which Belfast and Dublin could engage and take a more considered view on all of this. Instead, the politics of co-operation has been replaced by the old ways of megaphone diplomacy. We are all guilty of it.
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However, we are where we are and leaders on both sides of the Border have hitherto shown a remarkable capacity to overcome enormous challenges in the peace process to find our way to the common ground. In the remaining weeks leading up to the March 29, we must do so again. Whilst it is London and Brussels who take the lead in negotiations, I believe Dublin and Belfast can play a constructive role in helping to find solutions.
We can begin by recognising that we already occupy significant common ground. We all agree that the need to protect the peace process and the political and institutional arrangements of the Belfast, St Andrews and Stormont House Agreements is vital. Secondly, none of us want a hard border on the island of Ireland or the creation of a new border in the Irish Sea. Both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland do a substantial amount of trade with Great Britain as well as with each other. The Common Travel Area ensures the free movement of people across the islands and is accepted by the EU. Now we need to find a sensible solution to ensure a similar approach on the smooth movement of goods. We are of the view that a pragmatic approach can deliver an outcome on customs and trade that does not fundamentally undermine the EU single market or the UK single market. Thirdly, we all want to avoid a 'no-deal' outcome that could have significant implications for the short to medium-term economic stability and prosperity of both parts of this island. Building stability and prosperity goes hand in hand with building peace.
For us, the primary problem with the draft withdrawal agreement is the backstop. Our position on the backstop is supported by other unionists like Nobel Peace laureate Lord Trimble who has said that the proposals have the potential to "turn the Belfast Agreement on its head and do serious damage to it". He and I have not always seen eye to eye on the implementation of the Belfast Agreement, but on this we are on the same page. Lord Trimble is in the process of taking legal action to challenge the legality of the backstop and his case is supported by leading experts on the Belfast Agreement, such as Professor Paul Bew. For such key architects of the Belfast Agreement to raise serious concerns about the damaging nature of the proposed backstop must surely encourage the Taoiseach and others to pause and consider other options capable of commanding a wider cross-border and cross-community consensus.
If an 'orange and green' divide over the backstop results in no deal then it will further damage relationships on the island and undermine the prospects for restoring the political institutions. The absence of these institutions over the past two years has seen a re-polarisation of attitudes on both sides in Northern Ireland. In our opinion, securing a deal on Brexit that is broadly acceptable can only improve the prospects for restoring the institutions. It may suit Sinn Fein to have a chaotic situation but it surely can't be in the interests of anyone else.
Sinn Fein has tried to exploit the uncertainty over Brexit to raise the border poll issue, hoping to force a referendum in the near term. This is, of course, a party that was fiercely opposed to Ireland's membership of the EU and sought to vote down each successive European treaty. Clearly, Sinn Fein is self-serving, and its claim to act in the wider interests of the 'Irish people, North and South', is bogus.
The need to avoid a no-deal outcome is important to the economies on both sides of the Border. InterTradeIreland commissioned the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) to conduct an analysis of the impact of Brexit on the Irish border. The ESRI looked at several different scenarios, including one where trade between Ireland and the UK would be based on World Trade Organisation rules. The resulting imposition of tariffs and non-tariff barriers in this scenario could lead to Irish trade to Great Britain falling by 12pc, British trade to Ireland falling by 6pc, Irish trade to Northern Ireland falling by 14pc, and Northern Irish trade to Ireland falling by 19pc - resulting in a total reduction in cross-border trade of 16pc.
Agri-food, in particular, is a sector that has expressed concerns about no deal. A study of the impact of a no-deal Brexit on the EU's agri-food industry has claimed that beef and cheese exports from Ireland to the UK could collapse by up to 90pc with the loss of over 3,500 jobs. No amount of preparation by any government can nullify the serious economic implications outlined.
Additionally, a further fall in the value of sterling in a no-deal scenario would worsen the outcome for Irish exports to Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In this scenario, Irish trade to Great Britain would fall by 20pc, British trade to Ireland would remain broadly similar (at +0.3pc), Irish trade to Northern Ireland would fall 21pc, and Northern Irish trade to Ireland would fall 11pc - so there would be a total fall in cross-border trade of 17pc.
Despite these stark statistics, there are some who seem determined to impose the backstop. Yet the withdrawal agreement and backstop have been roundly rejected in the UK Parliament because they could lock us indefinitely into an arrangement that undermines the economic integrity of the UK. The backstop is designed to prevent a hard border but could ultimately result in no deal and actually compel the EU to impose a hard border in Ireland.
Having been an MP for over 20 years and in front-line politics since the early 1980s, I have seen too many times politicians become wedded to an idea and intent on implementing it, even when they are aware of the dire consequences. Now is not a time for brinkmanship but for leadership.
We are convinced that there are better solutions than this. Whilst we are not going to be prescriptive in this article about what they may be, we are aware of several ideas, including the 'Malthouse' compromise, that are surely worthy of serious consideration. If the political will is there on both sides, I firmly believe we can find a solution.
Whatever its imperfections, we recognise that the Belfast Agreement and subsequent agreements were built on the hopes of many people in both parts of this island. In contrast, the talk of a backstop is built on fear and has the potential to damage those hopes.
In these days, let us embrace hope and not fear and continue the search for our common ground across these islands. Brexit in itself does not fundamentally disrupt the potential for strengthening our various relationships but how we handle and respond to Brexit could.
As I have often said in recent times, the mountains in front of us are no higher that those we have already climbed. The DUP believes it is time to start climbing again so that we can conquer those fears and deliver an outcome we can all embrace.
- Jeffrey Donaldson is the DUP Chief Whip in the House of Commons and MP for Lagan Valley