Time to set a new course11 March 2019 | 15:14 | The Guardian
Northern Ireland is again at the very heart of the Conservative government’s Brexit crisis. This is not an accident. It is there essentially because Theresa May’s government is committed to three things that cannot be reconciled. One is the peace process promise that Brexit would do nothing to restore a hard border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The second is the promise that Mrs May made in 2017 to the DUP that there would be no regulatory divergence in the Irish Sea. The third is the Tory’s right’s doctrinaire passion for leaving the EU single market and customs union, which Mrs May very foolishly made into Brexit red lines.
This political pile-up does not just put Northern Ireland at the heart of Brexit. It does it in direct defiance of public opinion in Northern Ireland itself, which is not represented – and indeed is consistently ignored – by the DUP and the Tory right. Here is where the Irish Times poll comes in. The poll is a reality check. It confirms that an increased majority in Northern Ireland would now vote to remain in the EU, as they did in the 2016 referendum. It also shows that in the end only one of the three commitments really matters. That one is the commitment to a frictionless border. Most people in Northern Ireland would prefer to see checks between the North and Britain as opposed to checks between the North and the Republic. Two-thirds of Northern Ireland voters support a very soft Brexit, with the UK as a whole remaining in both the single market and the customs union, an outcome that would make any Northern Ireland backstop irrelevant. The DUP, in other words, is not the true voice of Northern Ireland. It is not even the true voice of its own voters.
The incompatibility of the three commitments has dogged Brexit for two years. It still does. It underpins the row about the backstop, which was the ostensible reason for Mrs May’s 230-vote defeat on the EU-UK Brexit withdrawal agreement in January. Since then, the attorney general has been struggling to reframe the backstop in some way that would prevent it from being a backstop. Unsurprisingly he has failed. Unless the attorney general has a rabbit hidden in his hat, and can reveal it to Conservative acclaim in the next 24 hours, this failure seems certain to produce another decisive defeat for Mrs May’s agreement this week.
If that happens, Mrs May can blame no one but herself, her party and her DUP allies. She has misread British interests, ignored Northern Irish opinion, and is in denial about Europe’s position. She made a terrible underlying blunder by believing that British opinion was committed to a hard Brexit when she should have aimed for an approach that might work for most people. She compounded that by accepting that the DUP speaks for Northern Ireland. Yet not only does the poll show that opinion on Brexit in the North is miles away from that of the DUP. It also shows that only one in five voters in Northern Ireland thinks the DUP is doing a good job, and that satisfaction with the party leader Arlene Foster languishes at only 16%.
It is beyond crazy that Mrs May is still trying to cajole parliament into passing the deal on the basis that the backstop can be unilaterally circumvented, that Northern Ireland opinion can be ignored and that the goal of Brexit should be an autonomous trade policy that would create a hard border in Ireland and cut large swaths of the British economy off from EU markets. The entire approach is wrong and dishonourable. It is being pursued against the wishes of Northern Ireland and in defiance of the interests of the UK more widely. But it is now also a political failure. It must therefore be replaced. MPs of all parties must come together and change the Brexit agenda at last. That is the task of a politically momentous week for our country and these islands.
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