SINN FÉIN MEP Martina Anderson has said that Brexit is the biggest thing to happen to Ireland since partition.
The Derry politician was speaking to TheJournal.ie in the aftermath of the October summit, where EU leaders and the UK government parted ways without a final Brexit deal, which was the reason the summit had been pencilled in at the start of the year.
Anderson found it incredible that the UK Prime Minister Theresa May addressed the EU 27 leaders in Brussels this week and didn’t bring any new suggestions that would break the impasse.
Theresa May came here and she had nothing new, nothing credible to put forward. She gave a 15 minute speech – what was in her head where she thought she could just go to a different location and make the same speech?
Anderson said that she and other Irish MEPs have been explaining the importance of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement to EU officials and European politicians so that they understand that the GFA “wasn’t just a handshake”.
“This is the biggest thing to happen to Ireland since the partition of Ireland… This is a very difficult challenge to the Good Friday Agreement, and May is the one who’s responsible as a co-guarantor to uphold it.
But it’s the other 27 – Germany, France, Portugal – who are all doing her job for her, who are all standing up for the Agreement. Frustration is at fever point.
The Good Friday Agreement upholds cooperation and peace on the island of Ireland; it was as part of this agreement that a hard border in Ireland came down. The backstop was proposed to ensure that the essence of the GFA was maintained.
But it means the UK government is faced with a choice of either allowing Northern Ireland to remain in the EU’s Custom Union in order to avoid a hard border, or strike up a customs/trade deal with the EU that would limit their trading relations outside of Europe.
Because of this, there’s been suggestion from leading Tory party members, including Boris Johnson, that the backstop should be discarded.
Anderson says of this:
“Does she ever stop and think what do the majority of the people in the North think and feel about what I’m saying, about not needing the backstop – does she even care? Across the North we want the backstop. We’re in a difficult place, so solidarity needs to be maintained.”
Because of the clash over other the backstop, it’s been suggested that May shouldn’t have agreed to it in the first place in December 2017 and again in March of this year.
“She’s in the big game of politics,” Anderson says. “And she’s not in control, she’s one of the 28 member states that are negotiating a deal.”
She’s also restrained by the wishes of the DUP, who are supporting her minority government. Although they don’t want the return of a border on the island of Ireland, they are against any deal that would treat Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK.
One journalist quoted a source close to Arlene Foster as saying “This is a game of who blinks first, and we’ve cut our eyelids off”, hinting that they wouldn’t reverse their opinion on keeping the North in the Customs Union.
That means the British Prime Minister is going to let the tail wag the dog, Anderson says.
It would allow the members of “a party that doesn’t represent Britain to shape Brexit”, she adds, and would mean “the disaster” that follows would be “foisted upon their children and families”.
Her eyelids are not cut off, without a doubt there’s room for maneuver. I’m no fan of any British Prime Minister, especially a Tory PM, but… She is the leader of the UK, she’s the one in charge of the country and it’s about time that the British told the DUP to get off their backs.
So what does Anderson think needs to happen now for us to avoid a hard border in Ireland?
“Brexit has thrown open a choice for people in the North: Do they want to stay with Britain or do they want to stay in the EU?
There’s provision in the GFA Ireland and the North of Ireland that if the people made a choice to reunite, the people of the North would automatically join the EU.
So is she saying that the people of the North should be asked which union they want to be a part of before Brexit talks continue?
“Facing into the possibility of a hard border, if there’s a significant change in public opinion, that would trigger a border poll, [which is the beginning of the process towards a united Ireland, as laid out in the Good Friday Agreement].”
People didn’t vote for Brexit, people want the backstop.
And the notion that the backstop changes the North’s relationship with Britain is nonsense. There’s been a border in the Irish Sea for years.
“I was at an Irish Port the other day – 100% of the animal feed from Britain is checked, 100% of the animals are checked. Wood and produce are checked, this notion that we couldn’t have the special status that we already have is nonsense.”