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Raab says Good Friday Agreement not like 'cracking novel' but he used it as 'reference tool' during Brexit talks

Jonathan Bell

By Jonathan Bell

Former Brexit secretary Dominc Raab said the Good Friday Agreement was not like a "cracking read novel" you would sit down with on your holidays but he had used the historic 1998 peace accord as a "reference tool," during talks with the EU on the matter of the Irish border.

The MP was giving evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on Wednesday morning.  Asked if he had read the text in its entirety, he said it was "not like a novel, you sit down you say 'do you know what over the holidays... this is a cracking read'".

"But it is an absolutely vital constitutional document and I consulted it at every moment where either as a result of my own initiative or as a result of advice of officials an issue was raised and to satisfy myself that we would never do anything not only to undermine the letter but also the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement or indeed the political stability that we all want to preserve."

He said he was "aware" of the provisions the agreement makes on a border poll and had used the historic peace accord as a "reference tool" during the Brexit talks he was part of.

MPs have become concerned over the Good Friday Agreement during the Brexit talks. Indeed the SNP leader in the Commons accused the government of "ripping up" the document in rejecting the backstop. Something the DUP angrily rejected. Last year immigration minister Caroline Nokes faced criticism for admitting she had not read the text.

Mr Raab said a re-working of the withdrawal agreement was the best way to protect the Good Friday Agreement. He said he struggled with parts of the deal with the EU agreed by the PM in particular protecting the integrity of the EU single market and ensuring Northern Ireland had "unfettered access" to the GB market place.

The MP was Secretary of State for Departing the EU from July to November last year. He resigned saying he could not support the deal agreed between the EU and the Prime Minister.

During Wednesday's session, lady Sylvia Hermon asked what alternative arrangements there could be to the backstop - and which Mr Raab voted in favour of on Tuesday night in the Commons.

He said he was no longer a part of the Cabinet and wanted to protect the integrity of the Government's position in the forthcoming talks with the EU.

Later he outlined how he felt either the backstop should be scrapped altogether, or there was a time limit on the backstop or an exit clause.

He said checks could be conducted away from the border and the way global trade was going was through a technological driven approach which "made sense" in terms of commerce and sovereignty.

Mr Raab said looking back at his talks with Michel Barnier - who agreed with him during one meeting last July that the backstop had to be "short" - the former minister said the government had not "grasped the opportunity" to thrash out the detail on that.

"That was not followed through with enough vigour on our side despite my best efforts and advice," he said.

Mr Raab said there was some in Dublin, Northern Ireland and the EU Commission who wanted to use the backstop as a means to control the UK after Brexit. He said this was regularly reported through the diplomat channel and it would be "naive to think that was not part of the debate".

He also accused the Taoiseach of leaking and misrepresenting a private conversation over dinner he had with Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney. He said he never proposed a three-month expiry to the backstop, as had been reported in November.

The MP also said he was "surprised" and would "question the wisdom" of remarks made about the return of troops on the border after Leo Varadkar said that's how a border could look in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Mr Raab said those people in Northern Ireland who supported the backstop had not been ignored but their views "taken into account" and considered.

On the border, he said it was "imminently solvable" with "good will, technology and centralised process". He said his department had not gone into the level of detail on how checks would be managed at the hundreds of crossing between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

He said he had a good understanding of the border saying he wanted to do it "properly and not some flyby" having visited it. He said he was taken on a drive by the PSNI from Crossmaglen to Newry. He said he held meetings with many different groups and met with all the major parties "at some length" at Stormont House "from Arlene Foster through to Michelle O'Neill and Mary Lou Donaldson [sic]."

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