Belfast Telegraph

Stephen Farry: May made a mistake framing backstop in constitutional terms

Stephen Farry
Stephen Farry

By Stephen Farry

Yesterday I joined with the other Northern Ireland Remain parties to stand up for the interests of this region. It is crucial the real voice of this region is heard, and the concerns and interests of people and business are taken into account.

Instead, the voices being heard, and indeed amplified, by the UK Government are leading to a distorted narrative and much riskier situation.

There is no such thing as a good or sensible Brexit. All versions will pose huge problems and indeed dangers for the economy, political cohesion and opportunities for the people of Northern Ireland.

Three broad paths are available through Brexit. The first is a People's Vote for to reconsider the entire process.

The second is for the UK as a whole to enter into a fresh customs union with the EU and to stay in the single market.

And, if these are ruled out, then the third is to see a special deal in which this region stays inside both of those economic mechanisms.

The backstop itself is not that special deal, but rather reflects the basic steps to avoid a hard border and to protect the Good Friday Agreement. It is the necessary safety-net - an insurance policy. It only works if it is open-ended, until and unless something better is agreed.

Brexit is turning into an unprecedented crisis for the UK. With barely weeks to go before the effective deadline for a withdrawal agreement, it is clear the Government still doesn't have a coherent negotiating strategy and remains caught in contradictory red lines.

Any deal within the Government does not itself guarantee acceptance by the EU and the honouring of existing commitments, including around the backstop. In turn, any withdrawal agreement increasingly looks likely to struggle to get through Parliament.

I believe there is a majority across the UK and certainly among MPs for either a new referendum or a soft Brexit. It would be perverse in a democratic society to see a bad deal or no deal, with the UK going over the cliff edge, without these possibilities being fully tested.

More immediately, if a withdrawal agreement is to be concluded then all roads lead through the backstop. The only viable version is something based on the proposals from the European Commission.

The Prime Minister has made a profound mistake in making a drama out of this and in particular framing it in constitutional terms, or claiming the fragmentation of the UK economy. It is not a threat to or a change in the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. If anything, it would bring a level of certainty in an unstable and fluid environment.

Economically, there are already plenty of examples where this region does things differently. The backstop does not inhibit trade with Great Britain, and indeed could see Northern Ireland become a bridge between Great Britain and the EU, and vice versa.

Northern Ireland would do much better from remaining under the EU's trade umbrella and maintaining access to the largest market in the world, while benefiting from its trade deals. By contrast, the so-called independent trade policy is a delusion.

It is not too late for the UK to see sense and to turn this around. But it is time for anyone with a stake in the future to speak out.

Stephen Farry is the Alliance Party deputy leader and party spokesman on Brexit

Belfast Telegraph


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