Labour: No Hard Brexit, No Hard Border?


At the time of writing, it has been 640 days since the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland voted to leave the European Union on June 23rd 2016. The referendum resulted in a narrow 51.9% majority vote for leave; thus the UK will withdraw from the EU in just over a year at 11pm Friday March, 29th 2019. The period since the historical vote has been characteristically indecisive and slow moving, especially with regards to the only EU-UK land border: Northern Ireland and The Republic of Ireland. Recently, negotiations around the land border on the island of Ireland have progressed with both the British Prime Minister Theresa May and Ireland’s, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, advocating against a hard border, according to the BBC. However, nothing official and legally-binding has been agreed between Britain and the EU due to the controversial issue of the customs union. It is in this context, although details to press have been released already, that Labour MP and shadow secretary for Brexit, Keir Starmer, will announce his plan to create a unified Labour committed to avoid a hard border solution in an official speech on Sunday 25th, according to The Guardian. Coming the day before intensive talks focusing solely on Irish border issues are due to begin in Brussels Starmer’s advocation for cross-party consensus, if it is successful, it will act as a stabilizer and aid an official agreement between the UK and EU on the contentious matter that is vital for post-Brexit peace.

According to The BBC, Starmer’s plan is to enshrine into law a promise not to have any infrastructure, customs posts or cameras on the Irish border after Brexit, and importantly have every member of the Labour party support it. Ratifying this bill would bring forward unofficial agreements made, according to Stammer’s interview in The Observer at the end of last year between the UK and EU. As quoted in The BBC, Leo Varadkar stated: “We have absolute unconditional support from across Europe from all member states that there can be no agreement unless a hard border is avoided, and I haven’t seen any departure from any European institution on that absolute position.” Therefore, Starmer’s effort to unify the Labour party alongside the EU state-members will arguably force through this key policy that, according to Starmer, the UK’s Tory Government keeps “black-sliding” on due to the fact it currently relies upon remaining in the customs union and they will not accept that.

However, the likelihood of success is questionable. Inside the party, there are strong divides so as The Guardian put it, it will be a “tough mission to keep 259 MPs singing from the same song sheet.” It was just on Friday, March 23rd that Labour Leader and Eurosceptic Jeremey Corbyn fired shadow cabinet Northern Ireland secretary Owen Smith for stating Labour must back staying in the single market and a second referendum, according to The Guardian. As Starmer put it: “You have got the basic mathematics that show that, broadly speaking, two-thirds of our [Labour] voters voted to remain and one-third voted to leave….Two-thirds of our MPs are in Leave seats and one-third are in Remain seats, and MPs quite rightly feel strongly that they should be trying to put across the views of those they have been elected by. That inevitably means there are different views.”

Nevertheless, if Starmer is successful in persuading Labour, it will only be just that: Labour. What is actually needed is bipartisanship in order to create a united direct, and if this doesn’t happen it is arguable the shadow secretary’s speech will fall on deaf ears. Quoted in The Guardian, one prominent Labour MP stated, “You need to do this on a cross-party basis. Tory MPs will be reluctant to defeat the government by backing a Labour amendment. They would not do it because they would be accused of working to put Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street.”

The importance of this issue should not be underestimated. Given that Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU 56% to 44%, these polices are already going against the majority in the island of Ireland. Compounded by The Conservation study that 88% voted, the Remain would describe themselves as Nationalists, compared to just 34% as Unionist and 85% of Catholics voted Remain, compared to only 40% of Protestants, it is worrying that unless there is an official decision advocating for a soft border then peace and security in Ireland will be threatened in the near future bringing up old tensions.

Charlotte Devenish

History student at the University of Edinburgh, currently on exchange at the University of Auckland.