Belfast Telegraph

Keir Starmer: Brexit a challenge for Northern Ireland, but with real cooperation we can find a way forward

By Keir Starmer

The Prime Minister made a number of solemn commitments to Northern Ireland at the end of the first phase of Brexit negotiations.

None more important than the commitments to protect "North-South co-operation" and "the avoidance of a hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls".

Those commitments were made "in all circumstances". That means there can be no rowing back. They are locked-in, even in the event of a no deal.

Having had the privilege of working with the Northern Ireland Policing Board as a human rights adviser between 2002 and 2007, I know that, for all communities in Northern Ireland, the commitments made in December go beyond the technical question of managing the movement of people and goods across national borders.

Put in their proper context, the commitments go to the very heart of the peace process and how the Good Friday Agreement can be maintained after we leave the European Union.

The agreement on phase one of the Brexit negotiations was thus the single most important development since the triggering of Article 50. Questions remain unanswered about the detail of our future relationship with the EU, but the foundation for a close and co-operative partnership has been laid.

This partnership is especially important for the people of Northern Ireland. We cannot look to Northern Ireland's future without remembering its past. As we grapple with the complex challenges thrown up by Brexit, we must never forget that over 3,500 people lost their lives in the 30 years before 1998.

It is now incumbent on the government - and indeed on all of us - to devise and advance proposals for our future relationship with the European Union that are consistent with the solemn commitments made last month.

Over the summer, Labour set out the need for a transitional period between March 2019 and any final agreement with the EU. We believe that transitional arrangements should be on the same basic terms as we have now. That would provide maximum stability and certainty as we prepare to leave. In other words, we should remain in the single market and in a customs union with the EU, abiding by the common rules of both during that period.

Such a transitional period is important for businesses and the economy. But equally importantly, it would provide the time and space to address the complex questions that arise in Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister has yet to make the same commitment on transitional arrangements. She still insists that it will be an 'implementation phase' outside the single market and the customs union. She says one thing to the EU and another to her MPs. That is because of the continuing bitter divide in the Conservative Party over Brexit; a divide that still exists around the Cabinet table. This unresolved conflict deep in the government is now the single biggest threat to securing a progressive future partnership with the European Union.

But, the clock is ticking. The Prime Minister has just eight weeks to face down the divisions within her party and agree the necessary transitional arrangements by the time the EU Council meets in March. Every day she delays, she increases the uncertainty and risk of a cliff-edge Brexit.

Transition is, of course, only a bridge to a future agreement about our future relationship with the EU. And on that issue, despite heavy opposition from the government, Parliament has now won the right to have a meaningful vote on what that future relationship looks like.

Instead of trying to resist that vote, the Prime Minister should embrace it as an opportunity to achieve an agreement with the EU that commands the confidence of Parliament.

Last March, I set out Labour's six tests for any final agreement between the EU and the UK. If the deal the Prime Minister returns with does not meet our tests, then we will not support it. We will not back a deal that does not work for all regions and nations of the United Kingdom; and we will not back a deal that does not work for all communities in Northern Ireland.

But, notwithstanding the difficulties ahead, I believe that there is a majority in Parliament - and in the country - that shares our approach to Brexit. A majority that wants to see a final deal that retains the benefits of the Single Market, with no diminution of standards, rights and protections; a majority that accepts that a Customs Union with the European Union should be kept as a viable option for the long term; and a majority that wants to see a final deal that builds a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU.

Brexit presents a formidable challenge for everyone in Northern Ireland. But recent history has taught us that, if the values of peace and cooperation prevail, it is possible to find a way forward.

Keir Starmer is Labour's Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union

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