Northern Ireland must come first, no matter what else is in the Brexit deal

The importance of maintaining the status quo in Northern Ireland isn't an afterthought but a necessity, says Dave Prentis.

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In a matter of weeks, the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union is set to change. For Unison, the impact this will have on Northern Ireland has always been paramount.

Yet too many people – including politicians who should know better – continue to reduce the impact Brexit will have on Northern Ireland to a conversation only about the movement of goods across the border. The reality is far more grave and complex. Brexit is an issue that seriously affects the peace process and will interfere in the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, North and South.

Unison has always offered unwavering support for the peace process, campaigning for the Good Friday Agreement and leading calls for genuine power-sharing government ever since. Yet as things stand, that international agreement – of which the British government is a guarantor – is under threat. Brexit has already been a significant factor in the collapse of Stormont and the failure to get it back up and running again. This has had a huge impact on Northern Ireland as a whole, and public services in particular.

At the same time, equality of citizenship – a right to choose British, Irish or both forms of citizenship on an equal basis, guaranteed by the Good Friday Agreement – is also threatened by Brexit. Parity of esteem, or equal treatment was promised irrespective of the identity chosen. Yet a no-deal Brexit risks immediately creating borders between different forms of citizenship that the Good Friday Agreement was meant to pull down. Both the British and Irish governments need to move to resolve these issues speedily, including through a new bilateral treaty on the Common Travel Area. This clarifies people’s rights and ensures it is not just ‘written in sand’ as the Human Rights Commissions in both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland fear.

These are huge and real concerns that go beyond the need to avoid a hard border. Yet they are not insurmountable.

As I’ve said repeatedly, Unison does not support Theresa May’s deal, but has always recognised that any agreement between the EU and the UK will not be possible unless there is a backstop.  Our members in Northern Ireland need this insurance policy, which is designed to both keep an open border across the island of Ireland and mitigate the impact of Brexit on the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process.  

We have no problem with a backstop. But we do have problems with plans to water down or eliminate it. By attempting to change the backstop, the Prime Minister risks weakening it and removing vital protection for the people of Northern Ireland. Simply put, an insurance policy is no good if it provides no cover when things go wrong.

Some of the opposition to the backstop has centered around the idea that it will create a border in the Irish Sea and challenge the current status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom. Unison does not want to see any border in the Irish Sea and we support the principle within the Good Friday Agreement that the future status of Northern Ireland is for its people to decide. The backstop clearly states it does not interfere with this principle.

What is needed then is not only a backstop but a future relationship with the EU that builds upon and strengthens the protection set out within it. One which also protects the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts. That’s something that’s good for Northern Ireland, and England, Scotland and Wales too.

As we move towards 29 March and the prospect of a ‘no deal’ becomes even starker, we need to recognise that a ‘no deal’ means no backstop and a hard border. The impact that will have on the island of Ireland cannot be underestimated. It would be a stark reminder of the dark days of conflict. It would inevitably create a target for those opposed to the peace process. It would divide communities. It would hit the 20,000 people who cross the border every day for work and study – including many public service workers who belong to Unison 

The peace process was about removing the borders between people on the island of Ireland. Brexit risks putting them back up.

There has to be another way. Peace has been too hard won to be throw away so cheaply. To protect Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement, a 'no-deal' Brexit must be avoided at all costs. A backstop is essential – not as a temporary measure, but as a bridge to a future relationship with Europe. Only by taking that approach can we avoid borders and violence whilst securing citizenship rights, jobs, communities and peace.

The impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland cannot be reduced to simplistic quotes about borders or considered only as an afterthought. For Unison – and for Parliament – it must be integral.