Belfast Telegraph

Hilary Benn: Document makes stark reading for border communities

Brexit committee members during visit
Brexit committee members during visit

By Hilary Benn

Back in December 2017, the Brexit Select Committee spent a day in Co Armagh. Away from the public evidence session, we heard from local groups and people who spoke candidly of their fears and concerns about Brexit and the potential changes it could bring to practical, everyday life.

We learned a lot about the extent of existing partnerships across communities and across the border. As recently as last week members of Westminster's Foreign Affairs Committee visited the area and heard similar concerns.

As we boarded the plane to head back to London news broke of what would come to be known as the 'backstop' agreement between the EU and UK; namely that in the absence of another solution to keep the border open with no checks and no infrastructure, Northern Ireland would effectively remain within the EU customs union and large parts of the EU's single market.

In the joint report published by the UK Government and the EU the following day - December 8, 2017 - we had the first mention of the 'mapping exercise' which showed how North-South co-operation, established under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, relied to a significant extent on a common EU legal and policy framework.

The document noted that the UK's departure from the EU "gives rise to substantial challenges to the maintenance and development of North-South co-operation".

Hoping the 'mapping exercise' would provide answers to the people we met in Co Armagh, our committee went to considerable efforts to secure its publication.

We called for this to happen in reports in March, May and September 2018.

We wrote letters to consecutive Brexit Secretaries of State in April, August, October, November and December 2018. We asked for the document, face-to-face, in April and July 2018. Despite the publication of a 'technical explanatory note' in December 2018, we did not get the full story until this week, after it was obtained by a member of the public through a Freedom of Information request.

The document, which we have now published, lists 142 areas of life in Northern Ireland that could be impacted by Brexit.

It demonstrates very clearly that the residents of Armagh were right to be concerned, as many areas of co-operation are "not underpinned or linked" to an EU law but listed because of their link to the Good Friday Agreement.

It's deeply disappointing that the Department for Exiting the EU did not choose to share this information with us or with the people of Northern Ireland. It's another example of the Government not giving Parliament the facts which we need to help inform our decision-making.

The stakes are even higher now as the clock ticks and the Conservative leadership debate takes up some of the available time until October 31, just 19 weeks away.

'Alternative arrangements' for the border are highly unlikely to be in place by then or indeed any time soon, which makes the transition and the backstop as important as ever. And as for leaving with no deal, our committee concluded in January that a 'managed no-deal' cannot constitute the policy of any responsible Government.

Hilary Benn MP is chair of the Committee on Exiting the European Union

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