Remarks by Barry Gardiner, the shadow trade secretary, that the Good Friday agreement is a shibboleth that is being “played up” in the Brexit negotiations for economic rather than political reasons are quite shocking. It is almost as if Labour have decided that peace in Northern Ireland is expendable as long as they achieve their objective in supporting the Tories in securing a hard Brexit.
As the Guardian reports, Gardiner was answering questions at a think-tank session in Brussels last month, when he suggested there was no reason to fear that a border with customs controls would lead to a return of paramilitary activity:
He also said: “I think we must also recognise that there are real economic reasons why people have played up the issue of the Irish border and the need to have the shibboleth of the Good Friday agreement. And that is because it is hugely in the Republic of Ireland’s economic interest to make sure that there is no tariff and no external border there.”
The paper comments that these remarks, from one of Labour’s inner group of Brexit decision-makers, strike a markedly different tone to the party’s existing policy. Jeremy Corbyn restated Labour’s opposition to the re-emergence of a hard border as a principle of the future relationship in a keynote speech in February. Do Gardiner's comments mark a shift in tone and substance since that speech?
Once more I find myself agreeing with the sacked Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, Owen Smith:
On Monday, Smith, a leading supporter of the Open Britain campaign, said Gardiner’s remarks were reckless and plain wrong. “I worked in Northern Ireland with Barry and it is remarkable that he can display so little understanding of the vital and continuing importance of the Good Friday agreement, or of the essential need to avoid any hardening of the border in Ireland,” he said.
He accused Gardiner of being an “ideological Brexiter” who was putting leaving the EU before everything else. “Labour members will be particularly shocked, but it should concern people in every party and none that there now seems to be a substantial group of senior politicians – from [the Tory MEP] Daniel Hannan to Barry Gardiner – who are prepared to sacrifice the Good Friday agreement in order to deliver Brexit.”
Having just read in Tim Shipman's book on the Brexit referendum how Jeremy Corbyn's office effectively sabotaged the Remain Campaign, I am not surprised at the way that Labour are backing the Tories in securing a hard Brexit. What does astonish me however is the way key spokespeople now seem prepared to jettison hard won peace initiatives in pursuit of that aim.