UK path on Brexit is mad and dangerous, says Baroness Armstrong in Dublin

She said it was a ‘tragedy’ that the Northern Ireland executive remained collapsed

 Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top, UK House of Lords Select Committee on the EU. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top, UK House of Lords Select Committee on the EU. Photograph Nick Bradshaw

 

The path being taken by the UK is “mad but dangerous too” a senior British Labour Party politician has told a Brexit conference in Dublin.

Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top, who was chief whip for the Blair government the early 2000s and is now on the House of Lords Select Committee on the EU, said the whole of the UK is being driven by a split in the political class about membership of the EU.

The divisions in the Conservative Party are well known but there are also half a dozen Labour Party members who are “hardline Brexiteers”. She said, “politics has to be about compromise” as the alternative was dictatorship.

She agreed with the view of her former party leader, Tony Blair, that the UK is being “led to insanity”.

A native of Sunderland, she said the north-east of England had the highest proportion of manufactured goods being exported from the UK to the EU. It produced cars and car parts for major European car-makers as well as goods for companies such as Siemens. She said the Japanese company Nissan, which had an operation in the north-east, had come to the UK because it was in the EU and English-speaking. “Sunderland is the last place in the world that should have voted for Brexit” but had done so.

The vote to leave the EU was a protest vote, in many cases by people who were angry with what had happened to them post the financial crash. Some voted because they thought migrants were taking British people’s jobs, something she described as “an absolute myth”.

Having voted to leave, “they don’t understand why we are not out.”

People who voted to leave were not interested in the complexity of the issue and were frustrated by the complex discussions about the negotiations over leaving.

“The tragedy of politics around the world at the moment is that people are being led to believe there are simple answers to everything.”

She said this was partly being driven by social media and was occurring around the world. More and more people are losing trust in the institutions. Wage stagnation was also influencing people.

Baroness Armstrong told the conference in DCU, organised by the university’s Brexit Research and Policy Institute, that she did not believe the London government knew what to do in relation to the border between the Republic and Northern Ireland, post-Brexit.

She said it was her belief that in a major speech to be made on September 22nd, the British Prime Minister Theresa May would say that the UK was going to leave the single market and the customs union. Ms May is due to set out her vision of a post-Brexit vision in a speech in Florence.

There is a camp in the Conservative Party that is not just determined to leave the EU institutions but has very strong views on free trade.

This is why the prime minister “cannot go there” in terms of the compromise in this area. She said it was a “tragedy” that the Northern Ireland executive remained collapsed and that there was no input from Northern Ireland into the talks over Brexit other than through the DUP’s links with the London government. “That is a real problem.”

In a report published last December the House of Lords Select Committee on the EU on Brexit and Northern Ireland examined the economic links between the North and South of Ireland, and called for recognition of the unique relationship on this island and for it to be recognised.

The impact of a post-Brexit border would be hard both North and South of the border, in particular in the agri-food area. The loss of the common travel area between the UK and the Republic would be very difficult for people in the Border area.

The Minister of State for European Affairs, Helen McEntee, said Irish society was faced with the challenge of having a serious public debate about its membership of the EU, while maintaining the high level of public support for the EU. “Ireland needs to get ahead of the debate, if it wants to shape it,” she said.

The extent of the public appetite for change in a range of areas needed to be explored. “We need to stop taking just a transactional approach to the EU,” she said.

Different member states have different priorities for what should happen in the post-Brexit EU, with Ireland’s priorities including completion of the internal market and the banking union, unemployment, investment in infrastructure, climate change, and terrorism. “Ireland is a neutral country but not neutral to terrorism.”