Theresa May’s panicked pledge will trash the Good Friday agreement

The PM is again putting short term political expediency before our country’s interests.

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This April will mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, which makes the latest panicked attempt at decisiveness from the Prime Minister, who has today pledged to leave the customs union, all the more shameful and insulting to Northern Ireland.

With nobody wanting a return to the days of the Troubles, the efforts made in the peace process by all communities should be applauded, not undermined. Although I have no doubt that this view is shared by Theresa May, her vow that the UK will not be a member of any customs union will completely eradicate the fundamental grounds underpinning the agreement. It should long since have stopped surprising me, yet I continue to be staggered by her willingness to put short-term political expediency before our country's best interests. 

The pledge itself is another example of May’s “cake and eat it” style of Brexit negotiation; the Government is contradicting itself with mutually incompatible objectives. On the one hand, it has committed to avoiding a hard border, yet, on the other, is adamant on leaving both the customs union and the single market – while also ruling out such special measures for Northern Ireland. If the subsequent result is a hard border, the Prime Minister will most likely attempt to blame Brussels, but let us be clear: the blame will lie entirely at her own feet. Her decision to leave the customs union and the single market will harden the border, and create dangerous effects politically, economically and socially. Since Ireland and the UK joined the EU on the same day in 1973, the border has been blurred without either community in the North having to “lose”.

Having come under pressure, from both the media and the right wing of her party, to set out her vision, the Prime Minister has rushed out a position. I may disagree with her stance on a customs union, but it is her motives which appal me: a piece of shallow, party management.

This decision goes completely against the advice of the UK-wide business community, and ignores the implications of the Government’s own economic analysis, which, leaked last week, acknowledges that while all regions will be hurt, Northern Ireland will be hit by one of the hardest falls in economic performance.

A hard border and export/ import tariffs would mean customs check points, traffic delays and road closures. The Republic represents the largest market for Northern Ireland’s imports, with 6,000 vehicles crossing the border every day. Another significant impact will be on cross-Border agri-food businesses, with the North relying on the Republic for more than 60 per cent of its exports of food and live animals.

But as Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney pointed out last week, the agreement doesn’t just remove physical hard borders and barriers for trade, it is also emotional, between communities in Ireland and between our two islands. And let’s remember that the majority of those in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, yet they are being dragged towards an extreme, politically-motivated mess that could threaten the peace process, which has largely kept violence at bay for two decades.

The idea that the UK will not be in a customs union confirms that those Conservatives in the government who are pragmatic, rational and pro-business, have been defeated by the ideologues. May’s failure to stand up to them is a monumental failure of leadership. 

Leaving the single market and customs union was not mandated by the EU referendum, and Theresa May's kneejerk trashing of the Good Friday Agreement is the starkest reminder yet that the final deal on leaving the EU must not be stitched up behind closed doors by those whose interests are political self-preservation and the accomplishing of an extreme ideological obsession. If you've not already come round to the Liberal Democrats’ proposal that the British people should have the final say in a referendum on the deal, this ought to be the final straw.

Tim Farron is Member of Parliament for Westmorland and Lonsdale and a former leader of the Liberal Democrats.