Irish opposition’s stance on Northern Ireland backstop puts opportunism of Labour and the SNP to shame, writes Brian Wilson.
In these weeks of turmoil, it is a good corrective to keep an eye on the Irish Times for an alternative perspective.
This week, its former political editor Stephen Collins wrote a column headlined: “House of Commons Brexit irresponsibility makes Irish democracy looks good.” Interestingly, this was more about opposition parties than Theresa May.
His argument was illustrated by the grown-up way the Dail responded to adjustments agreed by the EU (including the Irish government) to the “backstop” arrangements following Mrs May’s flight to Strasbourg.
It was open to Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein “to chip away at the Government’s position in what is likely to be an election year”. They did not do so, essentially recognising there were bigger fish to fry in Ireland’s national interest.
Collins contrasted this with Westminster, where the same adjustments were dismissed with contempt. Labour, he observed, “has behaved in classic opposition fashion, ruthlessly exploiting chaos in the ranks of its opponents, despite the great danger involved for the people of the UK”.
That is hard to disagree with – except that “ruthlessness” requires a degree of clarity and focus. Nor is there much evidence that Labour’s “exploitation of chaos” is making much headway in the eyes of the electorate.
The article prompted me to read the speeches from Opposition leaders in response to Mrs May’s second attempt at approval of the deal agreed with the EU. Sure enough, I found the arguments against the backstop (and hence the deal) bewildering in their feebleness.
The backstop has become the false flag under which entirely different motivations are being pursued and that is where the irresponsibility comes in. If, like me, you oppose a hard border within Ireland and want to retain a Customs Union for as long as it takes to negotiate something equivalent, that’s what the backstop offers. So why not support it?.
Yet I see politicians, both Labour and Nationalist, who at other times are anxious to wrap themselves in green voting in the same lobby as the DUP and extreme anti-EU Tories against the deal, ostensibly because of the backstop.
Listen, for instance, to Jeremy Corbyn complaining that the Strasbourg “concessions” were worthless because they merely “reduce the risk the UK could be deliberately held in the Northern Ireland backstop indefinitely” rather than “eliminating” it. Yes, I am quoting Corbyn and not Rees-Mogg.
It is a phony position which falls straight into Collins’ charge of oppositionism without regard for consequences. Or as Kenneth Clarke asked of Corbyn: “What on Earth is his objection to the backstop?” His puzzlement was as genuine as my own.
For the SNP, Ian Blackford offered the usual rant about independence and another referendum. When challenged by Sylvia Hermon, the admirable Independent Unionist MP for North Down, on the implications for Northern Ireland’s non-DUP majority of opposing the deal and the backstop, he didn’t have a clue.
The difference is that Clarke and Hermon, who are pro-EU, are reconciled to making the best of the referendum outcome rather than overturning it. Until that point of realism is inescapable, voting against the deal as the basis for further protracted negotiation is oppositionism without responsibility.
It ignores “the great danger involved for the people of the UK” which is, day by day, translating into lost jobs, lost investment, lost credibility. The logical quid pro quo for taking “no deal” off the table (which was progress) should be to work with the deal that is on the table, rather than keep this malignant uncertainty going.
Hilary Benn’s constructive efforts might have had the same effect though “indicative votes” sound more like a parlour game than a means of decision-making. There will be time for such refinement if the basic deal is first accepted. Extending uncertainty while manoeuvring continues is a much worse option.
Every Irish party other than the DUP supports the backstop. The final irony will be if even the DUP buy into it – while those who are using it as a flag of convenience are left spluttering on the sidelines, devoid of influence and shorn of credibility.