Brexiteers are endangering the North of Ireland because of their hard ideological beliefs, according to the man who was Britain’s chief negotiator during the Irish peace process.
Jonathan Powell (pictured) said British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his former Brexit minister, David Frost, have put the 1998 Good Friday Agreement at risk.
His comments came amid mounting concern that Brexit extremists in the British government and unionist hardliners in the north of Ireland are planning to wreck the North’s political institutions. They are demanding a ban on checks on goods at seaports in the north of Ireland (the so-called ‘Irish Sea Border’) and want instead the installation of a fortified border through the island of Ireland.
Powell, who was former British Prime Minister Tony Blair’s chief of staff, said he was concerned that neither Johnson nor Frost seemed to understand or care about the fragility of the “political settlement” in 1998.
He also questioned why Frost had made the highly peripheral issue of the European Court of Justice a red line in negotiations on the Protocol when it appeared progress was being made to resolve the dispute. That move fuelled suspicions that the current Conservative government wants to maintain a standoff for its own jingoistic political purposes, regardless of destabilisation in the north of Ireland.
He said it was irresponsible for the Tories to stoke unionist fears.
“What worries me is the casual political vandalism. They really don’t seem to care,” he said.
“I mean the damage they are doing to the very fragile political settlements in Northern Ireland, by posturing on things like the European court of justice, which do not matter to voters in Northern Ireland,” he said.
“They may matter to Boris Johnson and some supporters [in the London government] and the ideological base.
“But is it really worth sacrificing all the work that previous generations of politicians put into the Northern Ireland peace process on the ideological altar of the ECJ?” he asked.
Frost had repeatedly threatened to suspend to collapse the Brexit deal using Article 16 of the Protocol before he resigned as Brexit minister before Christmas. While the appointment of Johnson’s foreign secretary, Liz Truss, to succeed Frost was seen as a potential positive, she has so far continued the Tory refusal to implement the Brexit deal.
“There is going to be a border because of Brexit and it has to be somewhere,” said Powell. “No one’s come up with a better idea than in the Irish Sea,” he said, calling for a political effort to instead seek to “ameliorate the impact of it”.
Meanwhile, DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson has repeated his threats to pull down the Stormont political institutions over Brexit.
In an interview published this week, Donaldson said Truss should set a deadline for the talks with the EU over the Irish Protocol, and if the deadline passed, the government should collapse Brexit by triggering Article 16 of the Protocol.
“If we don’t get rapid and decisive progress, and one side or the other is kicking the can down the road, this will have major implications for the stability of the political institutions in Northern Ireland,” he said.
Donaldson had wanted his demands met by November 1, and has repeated the same threat on a number of occasions since, warning that “the time for talking was over”.
A DUP decision to collapse Stormont could see fresh elections to the Belfast Assembly, a return of direct British rule from London or a move to joint rule by both London and Dublin.
Sinn Féin MP John Finucane described the DUP threats as ‘political recklessness’.
The North Belfast MP said the threats “in the middle of an unprecedented health pandemic” represents “political neglect and displays clear contempt for people, communities and our health workers”.
“The DUP do not represent a majority of people or businesses on this island, who unlike the DUP oppose Brexit and support the Protocol which helps to limit the damage caused as a consequence of Brexit.
“It was the DUP that championed Brexit along with the Tories, they must shoulder the responsibility for the consequences.”