Wednesday 26 June 2019

John Bruton: 'Tory contenders need to fully understand reasons why the backstop must be in place'

Tory tussle: Conservative Party grandees in the race for the leadership post include (l-r) Dominic Raab, Jeremy Hunt, Andrea Leadsom, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.
Tory tussle: Conservative Party grandees in the race for the leadership post include (l-r) Dominic Raab, Jeremy Hunt, Andrea Leadsom, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.

John Bruton

The backstop is not just about the Border. It is not a technical matter. It is not just about what happens at 200 crossing points.

It is about the people of Northern Ireland, and giving all of them (not just a majority) the freedom to be who they are, and a sense of belonging. But the present debate in the UK Conservative Party about replacing the backstop ignores this. It seems to assume that it is all about finding technical fixes. Invisible border posts and some yet to be discovered combination of IT and lasers would solve the entire problem. That is a mistake.

The backstop is about far more than just the Border. It is a recognition of the fact that, in Northern Ireland, there is a population some of whom feel they have exclusively British identity and allegiance, some of whom feel they have an exclusively Irish identity and allegiance, and others of whom can combine these allegiances comfortably enough.

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The backstop is a recognition of this fundamental divide in allegiance, a divide which has led to so much suffering in the past. The backstop is an attempt to sustain the arrangements that ended all that suffering, the Belfast Agreement of 1998.

That agreement transcended these divisions by making arrangements for intense north-south and east-west co-operation. The idea was that these structures of co-operation would allow all three groups described above to feel fully at home in Northern Ireland under any present, or future, constitutional arrangements. That is the underlying purpose of the agreement.

Achieving this purpose was easy enough to envisage as long as both parts of Ireland remained in the EU, because EU rules facilitated and underpinned free and easy co-operation both north-south and east-west.

In such a context, territorial "sovereignty" became less of an issue, because it was overlaid by structures of free co-operation enshrined in EU law.

Brexit changes all that in a radical way. It brings territorial sovereignty back into the centre of the stage in a way that threatens the Belfast Agreement settlement in a fundamental way. I believe that Theresa May came to understand this, and that that explains her acceptance of the backstop.

Most of those contending to take her place in the Conservative Party leadership do not seem to understand or accept the underlying purposes of the Belfast Agreement.

In the EU-UK agreement of March 2019, the EU gave the UK very strong assurances of its good faith in seeking to find an alternative to the backstop. It has even allowed for some forms of arbitration, so long as the outcome does not threaten the underlying purposes of the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

But that will only work if the UK side, in any future negotiation, really understands and accepts the reasons the backstop was put there in the first place.

As I say, I do not believe that most of the contenders for the Conservative Party leadership have taken this on board.

The successful contender will take over a party with no majority in the House of Commons. He or she will probably also come into power with a promise to threaten a no-deal crash-out Brexit in the belief that that threat will get the EU to cave in. Such a threat will not have the support of a majority in parliament, so making it would be a direct challenge to the sovereignty of parliament. And restoring the sovereignty of parliament was supposed to be one of the goals of Brexit.

How might the EU respond to such a threat? The assumption in Tory ranks seems to be that fear of the consequences of no deal will be so scary for several EU countries, including Ireland, that the EU will offer the UK a new round of renegotiations, and a better offer than the final offer made to Mrs May in March.

This threat of no deal is accompanied by a threat not to pay money the UK owes to the EU, for commitments undertaken by the EU while the UK was a member.

That would be a default by the UK on its international financial obligations, which would make international lenders wary of lending to the UK government. It would be damaging to the UK's interests as a participant in international credit markets. If the leadership contenders who make such arguments thought things out, they would see that it would be most unwise for EU leaders to succumb to such threats.

The EU has to negotiate with the many other entities, some of whom are far more powerful than the UK. It would damage its credibility in other negotiations if it gave in to threats of the kind now being made by Brexiteers.

EU leaders have, after all, repeated over and over again that there will be no renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop. There is a strong suspicion in Europe that Brexit is, in fact, an insatiable emotion, rather than a rational policy, and that technical concessions by the EU would achieve nothing except create a platform for another UK demand. That is my observation of the recent pattern of the UK's negotiating tactics with the EU.

Many of the Tory contenders talk of the "precious union" of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Any union, if it is to endure, must rest on freely given consent. The Belfast Agreement of 1998 is part of that construct of consent. True Conservatives would seek to conserve it.

Irish Independent

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