Belfast Telegraph

Robin Swann: Brexit stand-off is madness... if people don't take a step back, then Operation Yellowhammer may seem like prudent planning

Continued failure to engage positively with Westminster will mean that the Irish Republic and other EU states will suffer the same fallout from a no-deal Brexit as the UK, writes Robin Swann

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier

By Robin Swann

Operation Yellowhammer is not something new that has just been dreamed up. It has been ongoing for quite some time and it will continue to develop.

The documents that were leaked at the weekend are a snapshot in time of how far Operation Yellowhammer has evolved and I'm sure, if we were to get eyes on it today, it will have changed quite a bit since the leaked version was written.

We have asked for a meeting with the Northern Ireland Civil Service and the Department for Exiting the EU for an updated detailed briefing on the content and planning for Operation Yellowhammer to form a more informed opinion, rather than rely on selective leaking.

Nobody should be surprised that a government will be planning and scoping all scenarios, no matter how extreme they may sound.

It is only by stretching the envelope of possible scenarios that you can make the plans to minimise any potential risks in the future.

I think we would be more annoyed if the Government wasn't conducting Operation Yellowhammer across all levels of government. It would be a complete dereliction of duty if they weren't.

There is no denying the content of the documents, but the furore created by the selective leaking of Operation Yellowhammer has, I believe, moved the focus away from what is the most fundamental issue and that should be making sure that it is never needed and that the EU and UK do everything possible to ensure that, when the United Kingdom leaves the EU on October 31, it does so in an orderly manner. That means getting a deal between the United Kingdom and the EU.

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A no-deal Brexit will be hugely damaging to Northern Ireland, the rest of the United Kingdom and the EU, including the Republic of Ireland.

Responsibility rests with both sides to do everything possible to negotiate a settlement acceptable to both. However, the current withdrawal agreement is not that deal.

A withdrawal agreement built around the backstop undermines the very foundations of the Belfast Agreement.

For too long now, the EU and the Irish government have turned their noses up at the genuine concerns of unionists.

They seem to forget that the Belfast Agreement was carefully crafted and the backstop disturbs the relative equilibrium of the agreement by destabilising one of its main pillars: the principle of consent. The backstop also bypasses democratic accountability.

These are not issues dreamed up by unionists. They are very real and, so far, both EU and Irish government negotiators have contemptuously ignored them.

I would remind the Irish government and EU negotiators that unionists who voted Remain in the Brexit referendum did not vote to leave the UK and neither did they vote in support of a backstop to establish a border up the middle of the Irish Sea.

Unfortunately, the EU's door has been very firmly closed to these concerns. I would appeal to EU negotiators and the Irish government to open their ears to the concerns of unionists and start listening, otherwise they are in danger of putting relationships across these islands back by decades.

We don't want a no-deal Brexit and we don't support a no-deal Brexit because we recognise the potential damage that could be done to our economy in Northern Ireland and to the rest of the United Kingdom.

As unionists who have always put the Union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland first, we need to be looking at what is best for the future of all our people and the Union itself. That's why everything possible should be done to reach a negotiated settlement.

Huge responsibility falls on our own Government, but that does not absolve the EU of responsibility for playing their part.

Rather than continuing to be part of the problem, I would respectfully ask them to become part of the solution by engaging positively with the UK Government.

If they have doubts about the sincerity of the Johnson Government to engage in negotiations, they should test them by getting around the table. There's nothing to lose, unless this is all about saving face.

If they continue to sit on their hands, firing off the odd verbal volley at the British Government, we'll end up in the worst of all worlds.

Some elements of Operation Yellowhammer may well come into being. The best way to avoid this is to get around the table and sort it out - just as was done at the time of the negotiations which led to the Belfast Agreement. Realism and pragmatism must overtake strict adherence to ideology.

The plain and simple fact is that a withdrawal agreement containing the backstop is not going to pass through Parliament. The EU repeatedly demanding that it does, doesn't mean that it will. This approach will only further entrench attitudes.

It is absolute madness to continue with the current Mexican stand-off in which all sides are now engaged.

If people don't take a step back, the EU and the Irish government may well feel in the end that they have given the British Government a black eye, but ultimately the people of the Republic of Ireland and other EU member states will suffer the political and economic fall-out of a no-deal Brexit alongside the people of the United Kingdom.

Unfortunately, at that stage Operation Yellowhammer may well look like a very prudent piece of work. It's not where I want to go and I know that it's not where the vast majority of people across these islands want to go.

But sometimes events take on a life of their own and unless someone starts pulling hard on the brakes, the headlong rush towards a no-deal Brexit and the implementation of elements of Operation Yellowhammer will become unstoppable.

We haven't reached that point yet, but it's coming up fast.

Robin Swann MLA is leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

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