Belfast Telegraph

Labour believes Northern Ireland can have its cake and eat it when it comes to Brexit and the border

By Paul Breen

Northern Irish affairs didn't get much of a mention on the main stage at the Labour Party's recent annual conference in Brighton, but featured heavily in a series of fringe events.

On a positive note, the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Development got heavily commended for not allowing a badger cull in Northern Ireland. Instead, the animals are captured and vaccinated, in an approach that protects the entire ecosystem.

There was praise too for the continuing success of the Good Friday Agreement, even if the present situation is far from perfect.

There was also discussion on the margins about the Labour Party's role in Northern Irish politics. Should the party stand candidates in elections, as a further non-sectarian alternative to conventional unionism and nationalism?

Though that question wasn't answered, it threw up plenty of healthy discussion, and caused a few ripples of debate beyond the fringe. But it's not a question that's going to get mainstream attention at this moment in time. That's because there's one obvious burning issue that the party needs to address, and it's the topic that's likely to dominate politics for the next five years.

Brexit dominated discussion in many of the fringe events as a whole at the conference. Consistently, speakers insisted that Brexit must not be allowed to threaten the Good Friday Agreement.

Colum Eastwood, in one fringe event alongside Owen Smith and Shadow Brexit minister Jenny Chapman, made an impassioned plea to keep Northern Ireland within the customs union for the sake of peace, progress and prosperity.

Though acknowledging that this 'sea border' might be seen as threatening the Union, the arguments offered by this panel came across as apolitical on the national question and economically convincing.

On the whole, the Labour Party has no more interest in an Irish nationalist agenda than it does in an Ulster Unionist one.

After some initial divisions at the time of Jeremy Corbyn's leadership victory, this is a party that is growing in confidence and is very much grounded in reality.

Right now, the reality is that there seem to be no plans for what is going to happen as regards the border on the morning after Brexit. That, for most people at this conference and probably for the people of border communities north and south in Ireland, seems far more important right now than big questions about what happens constitutionally in the future.

However, it is important to note that the Brexit debate has shifted the conversation towards reflections on the possibility of a united Ireland, in a way that has never been seen before in England. Once upon a time, such discussions probably only took place at Labour Conferences in marginal events organised by those with sympathies for Sinn Fein. Now, people from Stranraer to Shrewsbury, and Middlesbrough to Milton Keynes are discussing what should be done about the Irish border issue. But the intention of this was not to send Unionist parties and people rushing towards panic stations. The mood was one of coming to an arrangement within the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

That, for many delegates at the conference, means that an argument is made for Northern Ireland being treated as a special case within the existing union.

In adopting this position, the society here can be ahead of the game, just as with the badger situation. After all, the two things are linked. This is a society that is very much shaped by its agriculture and beautifully diverse natural environment.

This supports a whole range of industries, from tourism to food production, and there's a realisation that those industries need to be protected.

Time and time again in discussions, people from England seemed to feel a duty of care to look after Northern Ireland's interests because Brexit, as they agreed, was triggered by the English vote - 56% of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU.

The abiding mood of this conference was the positive way that the Labour Party wants to change the conversation around so many issues. Maybe Northern Ireland can learn a lot from these new ways of re-imagining old problems, because other ways of doing things are possible.

If there was one sentiment that really came across in this conference, it was that it is possible for Northern Ireland to be a part of the Customs Union in the EU, and the political union of the UK for as long as people want that. That is what's written down in the legal agreement of the Good Friday deal and that, above all else, is what Labour party politicians and ordinary members seem determined to protect.

  • Paul Breen is a member of the Labour Party Irish Society

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