Monday 19 August 2019

Martina Devlin: 'The fate of the island of Ireland is not even a factor for the Tories, while the attitude of the Labour leadership is not much better - we must prepare for the worst'

I visited Westminster earlier this week, meeting Labour MP Conor McGinn, and left with a sinking feeling that a no-deal Brexit on October 31 is imminent. Stock photo: PA
I visited Westminster earlier this week, meeting Labour MP Conor McGinn, and left with a sinking feeling that a no-deal Brexit on October 31 is imminent. Stock photo: PA
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

'Abandon all hope, ye who enter here' reads the inscription above the gate to Hell in Dante's 'Inferno', the first part of an epic 14th-century poem. It ought to be carved above the entrance to the British parliament.

I visited Westminster earlier this week, meeting Labour MP Conor McGinn, and left with a sinking feeling that a no-deal Brexit on October 31 is imminent.

You can never rule out Boris Johnson returning from negotiations in Europe with Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement, identical except for being printed in a different typeface - and wangling it through the House of Commons because members are staring into the abyss.

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But after talking to hard Brexiteers, moderates and Remainers, as well as pro- and anti-Brexit demonstrators lined up along Parliament Square, my gut feeling is that a crash-out exit is virtually guaranteed.

Ireland? We barely register, except as a bargaining chip in the zealots' machinations or collateral damage in the moderates' reckoning. Averting catastrophe, not just for Ireland but Britain, will take either a miracle or a people's vote - contentious though the latter would be. But could Britain be any more divided?

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson continues to pander to British jingoism as well as the DUP, on whom he will depend for support as prime minister, with his populist promise to pass a new law to "end unfair trials of people who served queen and country" - a reference to British army veterans of the Troubles. The announcement coincided with the Twelfth celebrations.

Hazardous times lie ahead. The Irish Government must continue to hold steady, although a softening of language around the Border question has developed. Checks are now conceded on goods entering the Republic from the North - "some action, somewhere" says Tánaiste Simon Coveney, but they won't happen at the Border. It's not an open border if there are controls.

And so to south Armagh-born and bred Mr McGinn, MP for a Merseyside constituency, who favours special status for the North and is disappointed by Labour's lack of support for the backstop. He's not alone there. Mr McGinn submitted the amendment that will deliver marriage equality if Stormont isn't convened by October 21.

This is a politician to watch: barely 35, a first-term MP, ambitious, a dealmaker - and openly critical of his own leadership's Brexit stance regarding Ireland.

He said: "I was very disappointed by Labour's approach to the issue of the backstop. I voted against the Withdrawal Agreement because it was catastrophic for the community I represent. It offered no protections on workers or consumer rights or the environment - plenty of reasons to vote it down, without saying we are voting against it because of the backstop (as Labour did).

"People were very surprised by Jeremy Corbyn's position on the backstop and what he said about it. I worry there is a perception that the reason he took that position is to court the potential vote of DUP MPs in a hung parliament."

There has been a lot of focus on division with the Conservative Party, but Labour is also riven between hardliners and moderates and lacks internal consensus on the backstop. Earlier this year, Mr Corbyn caused consternation by saying it should be removed from the Withdrawal Agreement because it locks Britain into a customs union.

Labour's time in government, which ended in 2005, was characterised by the steadfast way it worked towards peace in Ireland. Mr Corbyn's attitude compromises the Good Friday Agreement and undermines his party's achievements.

Mr McGinn defied the Labour whip last year to vote for Britain to stay in the European Economic Area. Asked about leadership issues in his party, he said: "There is a dearth of leadership [in Westminster]."

Does he see Labour in power any time soon? "Divided parties don't win elections but neither do parties with unrealisable manifestos." Labour hasn't won an election for nine years.

The party's dilemma is that it numbers among its ranks MPs who represent constituencies where up to 70pc of people voted to leave, and MPs where the electorate was equally committed to remain. His own constituency, St Helens North, polled 58pc in favour of Leave.

The reality is that Ireland can hope for little from Westminster. Plus ça change. We must continue stepping up arrangements to cushion, where possible, the impact from a hard Brexit; although the fallout will be devastating for Border counties and the North.

Irish nationalism hoped for more consideration from Labour, I tell Mr McGinn, son of a former Sinn Féin councillor, nephew of an SDLP councillor, grand-nephew of an Irish Labour councillor and great-grandson of a Justice of the Peace in the Republican courts. He says: "Ireland has never in its history been able to hope for much from this place [Westminster]. I hope I can get good things done but as a collective does this place have much regard for Ireland? The answer is very emphatically no."

The only Brexit for people who voted Leave is now a no-deal departure and he attributes much of the blame to Mrs May.

He also remarks on how little attention is being paid to the fact that if the UK crashes out, it will have to re-open EU negotiations with a weakened hand. "I think the only way to resolve this is to go back to the people, a people's vote. We are now closer to a second referendum than at any time since the process began - but also closer to crashing out with no deal."

This week, Mr Corbyn challenged the next Tory leader to hold a second referendum before taking the UK out on a no-deal basis, and pledged Labour would campaign to Remain. It represents a position shift, presumably due to pressure from other voices in his party.

Mr Corbyn understands the Irish conundrum but seems detached from it. Elsewhere, some Tory politicians betray a lack of basic comprehension, insisting they should be able to strike a bilateral deal with us. Mistakenly, they view Ireland as distinct from the EU27.

The Tory attitude to Ireland has evolved in a dangerous way, according to Mr McGinn. (Labour's isn't exactly reassuring, mind you.) Initially, there was a patrician approach that didn't accept our independent status. "It was more ignorance than malevolence. But now you see a real hostility towards Ireland. Some of the editorials in the press are very abusive about the Taoiseach when Ireland, in reality, is Britain's greatest friend and ally in the EU."

As a politician, Mr McGinn has worked with the DUP; Jeffrey Donaldson backed road death legislation he was championing. But the British government needs to be an honest broker regarding Ireland and he sees the DUP confidence and supply arrangement as compromising that standing. "The Tories have completely tarnished their reputation and their ability to be trusted by nationalists in Ireland," he says.

Irrespective of who governs Britain, it's apparent that Irish interests rank highly on neither party's agenda, although individual MPs are well-disposed.

Let's be under no illusions. Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.

Irish Independent

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