Even as a unionist, I can live with the Withdrawal Agreement because there doesn’t seem to be a viable alternativeby Sarah Creighton / November 20, 2018 / Leave a comment
We’re nearly there. After two years of negotiations and political drama, a draft Withdrawal Agreement was published on the November 14 by the EU and the UK Government.
In Northern Ireland, the Agreement has been welcomed by most of the Remain supporting parties. Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance have made it very clear that their first choice is to remain in the EU, but they are glad progress has been made.
The DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party had a very different reaction. Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann says that it will make Northern Ireland “drift further away” from the United Kingdom. The DUP have made it very clear that they will be voting the deal down and view the Agreement as a betrayal that puts the Union at risk, refusing to vote for Conservative budget measures and warning Theresa May that she must “keep her side of the deal.”
The Withdrawal Agreement breaches all the DUP’s red lines on an Irish Sea border and Northern Ireland being treated differently from Great Britain. This isn’t what the DUP foresaw when it signed its Confidence and Supply Agreement with the Conservative Party—especially after it secured “commitments” from Theresa May in December 2017 that their red lines would not be breached.
If the UK Backstop comes into operation, goods from Britain will have to be checked upon arrival in Larne or Belfast. There could also be divergence from Britain because Northern Ireland will have to remained closely aligned to the Single Market to smooth trade with the Republic of Ireland.
It is perhaps for this reason that the position of the DUP and UUP isn’t supported by businesses in Northern Ireland, many of which have come out in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement. Significantly, the Ulster Farmer’s Union, traditional allies of unionism, have voiced their support.
Similarly, despite all their clout, their leverage, the DUP has failed to convince the Prime Minister to back their point of view. Arlene Foster and her colleagues now sit in a mess of its own making. They chose to back the Brexit articulated by Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage: a Brexit that can’t marry up its ambitions to leave the Customs Union and the Single Market, and to not have a hard border with the Irish Republic. By pegging themselves to this ridiculous vision, the Brexiteers became responsible for the backstop; the EU saw it as the only way to protect the status quo.
Hardline unionism in Northern Ireland has form for this sort of behaviour. It digs its heels in when it should compromise. It chooses short term goals over long term results. In its belligerence and defiance, it pushes itself in an unwanted direction.
History, it seems, has a funny sense of humour. Thirty-three years ago, on the November 15, 1985, the British Government signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement. That, too, was viewed as a betrayal because it gave Dublin a say in Northern Ireland’s affairs. Thousands of unionists came out on to the streets and Ian Paisley cried, “Never! Never! Never!” outside Belfast City Hall. The DUP campaigned for a “No” vote to the Good Friday Agreement, and lost.
Today, the Good Friday Agreement is clear that the only way Northern Ireland can leave the United Kingdom is via a border poll. Until that happens, Northern Ireland remains in the union. It’s for this reason that the argument that the backstop threatens the integrity of the Union doesn’t wash.
That’s not to say that the opponents of the Withdrawal Agreement don’t have legitimate concerns. I worry about the democratic accountability of the backstop. Northern Ireland will have to comply with EU rules without having a say on those rules. Looking at the Agreement as a whole I think the rules on State Aid are problematic. There are questionable provisions on labour standards and environmental standards.
Yet even as a unionist, I can live with the Withdrawal Agreement because there doesn’t seem to be a viable alternative.
The clock is ticking. We are leaving the European Union in March. The EU has cautioned the UK against renegotiating what has already been agreed. It will only grant an extension of Article 50 if there is a change of government. The choice the UK has right now is the Withdrawal Agreement or “No Deal.” Worryingly, it seems unlikely that the Agreement will get through Parliament.
The DUP, in a statement issued on November 18, argued that the “choice is between this bad deal and a better deal.” The party wasn’t specific about what a “better deal” looks like, but we can guess based on who the DUP aligns itself with.
If there is a “No Deal” Brexit it could be a managed affair with all sorts of side deals to stave off the worst of the chaos. However, that isn’t guaranteed. Some of the politicians who back ‘No Deal’ do so because they want the UK to become a deregulated tax haven with worker’s rights stripped away.
The reality of No Deal could cause problems for the UK’s food supply, the NHS, medicine, citizen’s rights and, of course, the Irish border. There would be no transition period. Under this version of Brexit, Northern Ireland will not fare well.
There are calls now for “unionist unity,” a united front to take down the Withdrawal Agreement and embrace “No Deal.” If the DUP want to toss Northern Ireland aside and jump off a cliff, I will not hold their hand on the way down.