After months of deadlock in the British parliament over leaving the European Union (EU), with MPs unable to agree on any form of withdrawal agreement, there suddenly seems to be a chance of compromise. The new proposals put forward by Prime Minister Boris Johnson appear to be winning support from enough MPs on both sides of the political divide to make it conceivable that Johnson could clinch a withdrawal deal before the October 31 deadline, when Britain is due to leave the EU.
Two things appear to have made a number of MPs on all sides look favourably on Johnson’s proposed deal than they did on that negotiated with the EU by his predecessor Theresa May, which they voted down three times. The first is the change to the so-called “Backstop” - the part of May’s agreement that was designed to prevent the return of a border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland - part of the UK. Because the Backstop meant Northern Ireland would be treated differently from the rest of the UK, it was rejected by the main pro-union party in Northern Ireland - the DUP, a key ally of the British Conservative government - as well as by many Conservative MPs.
Johnson has now managed to persuade the DUP and some of his pro-Brexit parliamentary colleagues to back his alternative to the Backstop. This would involve keeping both parts of Ireland in the EU Single Market, meaning agriculture and manufacturing would adhere to EU standards on both sides of the border. Even though this means the rest of the UK would be outside the Single Market, and there would be checks on goods crossing between Britain and Ireland, the DUP and other Unionists appear willing to accept it. This is a major breakthrough by Johnson.
The second change in parliament is the realisation on the part of both MPs who support and oppose Brexit that this is the last chance to pass a deal before the October 31 deadline. With the government no longer having a majority in parliament a general election is widely expected by November. This could produce a new government willing to hold another Brexit referendum or even decide to abandon Brexit altogether – the nightmare for MP’s who want to take Britain out of the EU. They therefore have an incentive to vote for Johnson’s deal, even if they don’t like all its provisions, as it at least guarantees Britain will leave the EU. For them a bad Brexit deal would be better than no Brexit at all.
On the other hand, an election could vote in a more hardline pro-Brexit Conservative government that would happily take the UK out without any deal – something opposition MPs and some Conservatives are so desperate to avoid that they have pushed through a law forcing the Johnson government to ask the EU for a Brexit extension if there is no deal in place by October 19. A new government could change this law and take the country out without a deal. So there is clearly an incentive now for MPs opposed to Brexit to defy their party’s instructions and back Johnson’s bill. Around 12 opposition MPs have reportedly made it clear they would do so.
But the big sticking point is the EU, which has so far poured cold water on Johnson’s proposed alternative to the Backstop. This initial reaction could simply be a negotiating manoeuvre. But all along, the EU has closely supported the position of the Irish government, which is implacably opposed to the idea of any customs checks in Ireland, even if these are conducted away from the border.
Dublin argues that the Backstop is the only way to safeguard a borderless Ireland and thereby the 1988 Belfast Agreement that brought Ireland’s civil war to an end. But that agreement also established the principle of consent – that nothing should change the status of Northern Ireland without the consent of those living there. The Northern Ireland Assembly gave expression to this local democracy and power sharing, through differences between the local political parties have meant the assembly has sadly not met for over two years.
Strangely neither the EU nor the Irish Republic seem concerned about re-establishing local democracy in Northern Ireland. Boris Johnson has revived the idea of devolved consent by stipulating that his proposals should be endorsed by the Assembly. But strangely this had not been welcomed by Brussels or Dublin, who seem to regard the absence of a border as the only important part of the Belfast Agreement. But this agreement was essentially a carefully designed balancing act, seeking to placate both political traditions in Northern Ireland. If either the Irish Nationalist or Unionist community felt ignored, there was the danger the agreement would fail and peace be put at risk. So ignoring the principle of consent embodied in the Assembly and insisting that everything can be negotiated by politicians in Dublin, London and Brussels over the heads of the people of Northern Ireland is just as much of a threat to the peace agreement as reinstating custom posts on the border.
Tony Blair, one of the architects of the Belfast Agreement, argues that the Johnson proposals fail to respect the nationalist aspirations of those who seek a united Ireland. But David Trimble, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his part in securing the peace agreement, points out that the Backstop, far from defending the peace agreement, rides roughshod over the sensitivities of those who want to keep Northern Ireland part of Britain.
Only a carefully crafted compromise can resolve the Brexit question in Ireland and keep both communities happy and feeling their rights are being respected. Johnson’s plan is far from perfect, but it at least it takes on board the concerns of both communities in Northern Ireland and has proved more acceptable to both sides of the debate in the UK parliament than his predecessor’s Withdrawal Agreement. It would be tragic and a bitter irony if the EU itself, following Dublin’s lead, rejected this eleventh-hour compromise and in doing so set Britain on the path of a potentially disastrous no-deal Brexit that Brussels has all along said it wants to avoid.
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