Sunday 20 January 2019

Sinn Fein has duty on Brexit vote

Stock photo: PA
Stock photo: PA


As the various twists and turns on Brexit continue to offer little by way of clarity, an argument is beginning to emerge from the more strident wing of the UK Conservative Party that the Good Friday Agreement has outlived its usefulness and should be dispensed with, an outcome which would, of course, help facilitate the hardest of hard Brexits and would be detrimental to this island's interests, North and South.

This argument should be roundly rejected by all political leaders on the island of Ireland and publicly by the UK government, certain members of which seem to be determined to wreak untold and not just economic havoc on this island in pursuit of their ill-thought-out position of departure from the European Union.

In a speech in New York last week, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, strongly defended the Belfast Agreement, stating that the Government would not give credence to those who had, he said, glibly claimed the Good Friday Agreement to have failed or outlived its utility. While the operation of the agreement has at times left a lot to be desired, it is not true to say that the document itself has entrenched sectarianism in the political process. Rather it is the intransigence of the main political players in Northern Ireland which has done so, that is, both the DUP and Sinn Fein, and latterly Sinn Fein with its untimely insistence on a standalone Irish Language Act. However, both parties have a duty to make the agreement work as expected by the peoples of Ireland.

On the broader issue of Brexit, the UK government continues to display what European Council President Donald Tusk has called "pure illusion" in relation to its future trading relationship with the EU in proposing what the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has described as an "a la carte" managed divergence from the single market. However, political developments in the UK now also place a further responsibility on Sinn Fein. The UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, is expected to finally unveil her vision for departure from the EU this week.

Members of the Conservative Party who wisely support the UK remaining in the customs union intend to vote against Mrs May's intended trade bill and, at this stage, look like they will have the support of the Labour Party, whose position on the UK remaining in the customs union is evolving to support the proposition. The vote will be close. Sinn Fein has a crucial seven votes which could inflict a significant House of Commons defeat on Mrs May's government, an outcome which could potentially be a game changer in the entire Brexit debate. Mary Lou McDonald should now take that opportunity as an indication of her party's claimed shift from the past. This will be a critical decision for the new Sinn Fein President.

Meanwhile, the Good Friday Agreement, an international agreement between two sovereign governments which has been approved by voters across the island of Ireland in two referendums, must remain out of bounds.

To contemplate its sacrifice in the context of Brexit, or any other context, would indeed betray an ignorance beyond parallel of the history and evolution of peace in Northern Ireland.

That said, responsibility to make the Agreement properly function primarily rests with the DUP and Sinn Fein, which so far have shown scant regard to either its tenets or spirit.

Sunday Independent

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