Brexit: Corbyn rejects both ‘hard border’ and Irish Sea border

UK Labour leader calls for revival of British-Irish body to tackle NI impasse


Jeremy Corbyn has said the British Labour Party will not support any Brexit deal that includes the return of a hard border in Ireland.

He was speaking on Thursday at Queen’s University Belfast during his first visit to Northern Ireland since he was elected Labour leader in 2015.

Mr Corbyn was accompanied on the visit by shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer, shadow Northern secretary Tony Lloyd and shadow NIO minister of state Steve Pound.

“Let me be clear, Labour will not support any Brexit deal that includes the return of a hard border to this island,” Mr Corbyn said.

“We are also clear there must be no effective border created in the Irish Sea either.”

Mr Corbyn said it was his party’s position for the UK to have a customs union after Brexit with access to the single market. He warned of the effect of Brexit, the dangers of a hard border coming back, and of the importance of “peace in Ireland”.

On his call for the revival of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIC), he said Stormont “needs to be back in business”, and he did not want to see direct rule from Westminster.

“If parties cannot come together and agree the reestablishment of the administration in Belfast then maybe the British and Irish governments have got to get together to promote that as rapidly as possible,” he said.

Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill welcomed his comments on the BIIC but she said her party wanted the Labour Party to “move further” on Brexit.

“The people of the North voted to remain in the European Union and that democratic decision needs to be respected,” she said.

“Our economy can’t withstand being outside the customs union and the single market and we need to see our special circumstances recognised, with no hardening of the border, citizens’ rights respected and the Good Friday Agreement protected in all its parts.”

During a questions and answers session, an A-level politics student from an Irish language school asked Mr Corbyn about the prospect of a border poll on Irish unity if he was the next British prime minister.

“That would be a decision we could make within the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and if that is the wish then clearly such a poll would happen,” he said.

“I am not asking for it, I am not advocating for it, what I asking for is a return to the fullness of the Good Friday Agreement which would open up the opportunity, and possibilities for the future of Ireland as a whole.”

SDLP member and former press officer Martin McAuley described Mr Corbyn’s performance in Belfast as “impressive” but said three years into his leadership “it’s a late opening gambit”.

He said “the Labour leader’s endorsement of the BIIC represents a workable policy that may not break the Stormont stalemate but could advance issues in the current vacuum.

“Taken alongside his endorsement of marriage equality and a customs union with the EU to avoid a hard border, Corbyn is creating clear blue water for Labour on Northern Ireland.”

‘Snubbing victims’

There was a less enthusiastic response from unionists. DUP MP Gregory Campbell accused Mr Corbyn of “snubbing victims of terrorism” by not agreeing to meet with them in Derry, TUV leader Jim Alllister claimed he had an “anti-unionist agenda”, and UUP leader Robin Swann called on him to “state clearly where he stands on terrorism”.

Asked for response to Mr Campbell’s claims and clarification on his position on IRA violence, Mr Corbyn told reporters it was “not a snub”. His timetable was already prepared before a letter from Mr Campbell was received and that Mr Lloyd would be meeting with victims.

“All victims of all violence need to be respected and their families need that support and that is why Tony is going to be meeting with them,” he said.

On whether he intended to whip Labour MPs either to abstain or vote against the UK joining the European Economic Area, he said: “We are not in favour of the EEA as an option because it would mean we are rule takers not rule makers... the Labour position is we want to achieve a customs union with the European Union and access to the single market so we are not in support of the EEA.”

On Thursday, Mr Corbyn also visited pupils at Lagan College, the North’s first integrated school, founded in 1981, and had meetings with trade unions and business leaders.

On Friday he is expected to address a Derry Chamber of Commerce event, visit the Border area and also accompany Mr Lloyd to Harland and Wolff shipyard.