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8 October 2019

The callous disregard that Boris Johnson shows for Northern Ireland is scandalous

The Good Friday Agreement is in peril.

By Dave Prentis

A no-deal Brexit has no majority in the House of Commons. It is widely accepted that crashing out would be a disaster for our economy, jobs and public services. And yet there remains a real risk that, despite all of that, we could crash out of the EU in just a few weeks. 

For Unison, the UK’s largest trade union, that’s an unacceptable risk. Public services that have already been pushed to breaking point by a decade of cuts risk being smashed on the rocks of Boris Johnson’s no-deal Brexit. 

And crucially, the Good Friday Agreement is in peril.

The harsh reality is that, however it’s dressed up, no deal means chaos for the UK, and disaster for Northern Ireland where a de facto border could appear in just a few weeks.

In his attempts to talk up a potential deal with the EU, the Prime Minister has floated the possible removal or replacement of the so-called “backstop”. Yet he seems to care little that the backstop is the only legally binding and substantive means of avoiding a hard border and protecting the Good Friday Agreement. 

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Protecting that agreement and the peace it delivered has been a top priority for Unison from the outset. I will always be proud of the role that our union played in the Irish peace process.

That’s why for us, the impact of Brexit on the island of Ireland has always been a pivotal concern, not a last-minute lazy afterthought. It is obvious, yet bears repeating at this critical time, that there cannot be an agreement between the EU and the UK unless there is means of maintaining an open border and mitigating the impact of Brexit on the Good Friday Agreement.  

Simply put – no-deal Brexit means no backstop. No backstop means a hard border. And a hard border means the end of the Good Friday Agreement.

Boris Johnson may state that his proposed alternative for the backstop is a fair and reasonable compromise, but it is nothing of the sort. It is utterly unacceptable in terms of protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts. 

A customs border on the island of Ireland clearly undermines the agreement and will cause major political and social tensions. The idea of obtaining “consent” to an all-island regulatory zone for goods through the NI Executive and Assembly (which has not sat for nearly 1,000 days) opens the real risk of the DUP, or any other political grouping within the Assembly, deploying the “petition of concern” mechanism which is used for contentious issues as an effective veto. This will only cause further political gridlock and economic uncertainty. 

The callous disregard that Boris Johnson and his supporters are showing for the peace process and the people of Northern Ireland is nothing short of scandalous. Their actions are not those of a government that in any way takes the historic responsibility of a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement seriously.

But what Boris Johnson and others like him often forget is that their poorly disguised goal – a free trade deal with the US – is jeopardised by their catastrophic handling of the Irish border issue.

Congressional leaders, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have been clear that they will not allow a free trade deal with the UK that compromises the Good Friday Agreement. Donald Trump can talk about striking free trade deals with the UK all he wants; the reality is that it is Congress, not the president, which approves trade agreements.

Our red lines for a deal with America or any other nation are clear – our NHS is not for sale, our rights must be defended and the Good Friday Agreement must be protected. 

With that in mind, Unison has helped form a unique grouping, speaking with one voice alongside civic and business representatives from Northern Ireland. This delegation recently returned from Washington where it gave evidence to the Ad Hoc Committee on the Good Friday Agreement, met with trade union federation AFL-CIO, spoke with both the Irish and UK government teams in Washington and met with political leaders from both the US Congress and Senate.   

The message they received on Capitol Hill was crystal clear – any US/UK deal is contingent on the retention and protection of the Good Friday Agreement.

I want to pay tribute to our Northern Ireland region for their incredible work on this delegation – and for their ongoing commitment to peace. They know how important the Good Friday Agreement is and the pivotal role it has in preventing a return to conflict. Their voices must be heard loud and clear in the Westminster parliament as they have been in the American Capitol.

Their call for peace must be heeded – and Unison will not rest until that peace is secure for future generations.

Dave Prentis is general secretary of the trade union Unison. 

[See also: The return of the Irish question]

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