Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: A Northern Ireland-only referendum on NI-only backstop is sole hope of side-stepping Brexit meltdown

DUP opposition to the original withdrawal deal negotiated by Theresa May flies in face of logic, says Alban Maginness

The row over the Irish border is the single biggest obstacle to agreeing a deal
The row over the Irish border is the single biggest obstacle to agreeing a deal

Boris Johnson's recent high-profile visits to Berlin and Paris to see the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the French President, Emmanuel Macron, though cordial, ended without any dent in the long-standing Eur opean consensus over the Brexit withdrawal deal.

Both the Germans and French insist that there will be no renegotiation of the withdrawal deal agreed by Theresa May's Government and this includes the backstop, which Macron emphasised is an "indispensable" part of the agreement.

This cannot change unless there is an alternative guarantee to protect Ireland, north and south, from the ravages of a hard border.

They understand that a hard border would seriously endanger the peace arising out of the Good Friday Agreement and would also be damaging to the integrity of the European single market.

Chancellor Merkel told the Prime Minister that it was up to Britain to provide an alternative to the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop. She also said that the British Government had 30 days to produce its proposals.Johnson, surprisingly, accepted that it was up to his Government to produce a viable alternative within that 30-day period. Given that the original agreement negotiated by May took about 18 months to be agreed, it is extremely unlikely to see an alternative being worked out in the course of a mere 30 days.

Of course, Boris, during his European tour, strongly reiterated that the UK would exit the European Union come what may on October 31, 2019, and if that meant a no-deal Brexit, then so be it. The Prime Minister has wedded his Government to that position and there is very little doubt that he is seriously committed to leaving the EU on that date.

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This is surely the nuclear option. But Boris, despite the mutually devastating consequences of a no-deal scenario, seems determined to leave on that date, irrespective. It is truly a test of his premiership, as well as a test of his Government, but he may soon come to regret putting all his eggs into one basket.

However, it is widely believed that Boris is cynically playing to the gallery of anti-European public sentiment in Britain and is carefully fostering a crisis leading up to October 31, knowing full well that there will be no acceptable alternative to the backstop, nor the current withdrawal agreement.

In such circumstances, he will propose leaving without a deal and defy those in parliament who are determined to stop a no-deal.

How would you vote in NI-only referendum on NI-only backstop?

Posted by Belfast Telegraph on Wednesday, August 28, 2019

But if they were to win in parliament and prevent a no-deal Brexit, he would call an immediate general election to be fought solely on the single issue of no-deal.

Johnson would then hope to win a parliamentary majority and, with the strength of that mandate, renegotiate a better deal with Europe.

Daring and dangerous, this is a very high-risk strategy.

A much better strategy for Boris is for him to revert to the original draft agreement between Theresa May and Europe, with a Northern Ireland-only backstop arrangement, effectively keeping this region within the customs union and the single market regulatory regime.

This would allow Britain free rein to make its own trade decisions.

However, the DUP is still opposed to this for, apparently, ideological reasons that clearly defy local business and industrial sense.

But during the course of last week, Tom Kelly, the highly influential former spin doctor for Tony Blair during the Good Friday Agreement negotiations, suggested a way out by proposing a referendum in Northern Ireland alone on the issue of a Northern Ireland-only backstop.

His novel proposal makes a lot of sense, as a majority in favour would permit Johnson to proceed on this basis alone.

It would also have the support of both the Irish Government and the European Commission.

It could also circumvent the opposition of the DUP, as they would have to accept the majority decision of the people here as binding on them, if a majority voted in favour of a Northern Ireland-only backstop.

Tom Kelly, who comes from here and has vast political experience from his long time in Downing Street, believes that this region is a special case within Europe, given our unique land border with the EU and the crucial importance of protecting the Good Friday Agreement.

He is also convinced that there will be a negative economic impact on Northern Ireland if there is a hard Brexit, or a no-deal Brexit. He is of the firm view that it is vital Northern Ireland be protected by a special backstop arrangement.

Tom's proposal for a local poll is fresh and imaginative, providing us with a way out of the current mess.

It is a clear and practical alternative to our present dire straits.

Belfast Telegraph


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