By Colum Eastwood
We are now less than 100 days from when we are supposed to be exiting the European Union. Each passing day that Westminster fails to agree a position, we hurtle towards a ‘no deal’ Brexit that will see us crash out of the EU in calamitous fashion. Brexiteers dress this up as ‘taking back control’; it would actually be the result of the most mismanaged political process these islands have ever seen.
The Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) have consistently said that there is no such thing as a good Brexit, yet consistently this message has fallen on the deaf ears of those intent on Brexit no matter the cost. It has been two and a half years since the referendum and still no Brexiteer has been able to make a convincing argument for how leaving a trading block of 500 million people is economically constructive for the people of these islands.
Let’s be clear: this political crisis hasn’t been created by the current deal on the table. The headlong rush to deliver Brexit in spite of all good advice is the sole cause of the turmoil.
With the best will in the world, there is no magical way to reconcile Brexiteer promises with the British Government's legal obligations to the island of Ireland. Continuing to deny that reality is a mistake. Sooner or later, MPs will have to come to the realisation that there will be no deal without a backstop.
We support the withdrawal agreement because of the backstop. The backstop would protect us from economic ruin should the British Government and the EU fail to agree an alternative solution. For the SDLP, the backstop is an insurance policy. Anyone watching the current machinations in Westminster should understand why we need that insurance.
Business leaders, the agri-food sector, border communities, Remain voters, the Irish government and the EU27 all agree that we can't be left at the mercy of the European Research Group (ERG) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
The opposition to the backstop on the benches of Westminster has been a stark reminder of how Northern Ireland is almost always an afterthought in British politics. That has led to a total misunderstanding of the position held by the majority here. It is also now clear that many in British politics have no understanding of the Good Friday Agreement. That agreement is, in effect, our constitution.
Much of the debate around the backstop is centred on the argument that somehow it undermines the constitutional integrity of the UK. I'm an Irish nationalist; I want constitutional change. I think a united Ireland is the only way that we can reach our full potential and I think that Brexit makes a united Ireland more likely. However, the Good Friday Agreement states clearly that change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland can only happen when people vote for it in concurrent referenda North and South.
Having checks on animal goods coming into Northern Ireland from Britain, while allowing us to trade with both the British and the EU markets, hardly constitutes constitutional change. It protects us from a hard border and could allow us to create much needed economic growth.
Why would anyone not support it?
Colum Eastwood is the leader of the SDLP and the Member of Northern Ireland’s Legislative Assembly for Foyle
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