Legacy of Troubles stresses value of Belfast Agreement, says Howlin

Labour leader warns Taoiseach on Dublin meeting with British PM and chaotic Brexit

Labour leader Brendan Howlin said it is ‘disclosure time’ for the Government to spell out what is going to happen to the Border if there is a crash-out Brexit. File photograph: Laura Hutton

Labour leader Brendan Howlin said it is ‘disclosure time’ for the Government to spell out what is going to happen to the Border if there is a crash-out Brexit. File photograph: Laura Hutton


Labour leader Brendan Howlin has said too much “sweat and blood” was sacrificed in Ireland during 30 years of the the Troubles to allow British prime minister Boris Johnson to undermine the Belfast Agreement.

In a direct challenge to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar ahead of his meeting with the prime minister in Dublin on Monday, Mr Howlin said the visit must not be used as part of a ruse where Mr Johnson can “tick another box” on his way to a disorderly Brexit.

The Labour leader was speaking at the start of his party’s two-day parliamentary meeting in Cork, where it is finalising its policies and strategies for the next general election, expected to take place by early next summer.

He said the Taoiseach would be in a difficult position when he meets Mr Johnson.

“There is a real fear he will come here and tick another box. Yes, I have been engaged with the Irish Taoiseach, with the French president and the German chancellor. I have done my best.”

He said Mr Varadkar’s attitude must be welcoming to the prime minister of our most important trading partner and the nation with which we have most kinship.

“At the same time [Mr Varadkar needs to be] crystal clear and firm about what Ireland requires. We have expended too much sweat and blood in getting a peace deal settlement on this island. We will not allow it to be undermined by any movement of the Tory party in Britain.

“I hope we can have an accommodation. But we must make it clear at this stage we will not be pushed to the side to accommodate the difficulties he is in in the Westminster parliament,” he said.

Mr Howlin said that Brexit was overshadowing all domestic politics at present.

He expressed doubt about the Government’s preparedness: “There has been far too much reliance on Dublin port while we need direct connectivity from the ports of Cork, Rosslare and Foynes to allow more direct routes [to Europe] to contend with the UK land bridge [long delays are expected to occur at British ports].”

He said that already Brexit was having a negative effect on manufacturing with companies laying off short-term staff and suspending overtime, because of a decline in orders.

He said the Government has been passive until now and needs to be far more proactive in reaching out to companies.

Mr Howlin also said it is “disclosure time” for the Government to spell out what is going to happen to the Border if there is a crash-out Brexit.

“We have given great slack to the Government. [Its argument was] if it spelled out what would happen on the Border in the event of a no-deal crash-out Brexit, [the British government] would use that against the EU in negotiations.

“Now it’s absolute disclosure time as far as the Labour Party is concerned. People are making preparations and making trade across the Border. People need to know exactly what will happen.”

He said Tánaiste Simon Coveney had now agreed to brief Opposition leaders on the implications of Brexit this Tuesday.

Mr Howlin said he expects no major shock even in a no-deal scenario.

“I don’ believe on November 1st there will be a sudden phalanx of checks on the Border. [In the EU] there is a unique understanding of the difficulties of the border and the importance of the Good Friday Agreement. We will have great flexibility in ensuring the rules of the single market are observed,” he said.

What are Labour’s priorities?

Outlining his party’s priorities, Mr Howlin said the big issue was equality across all areas of life. He said economic equality was a big focus for it in policy terms, seeking better pay, trade union representation and a living wage.

He said Labour would also have strong policy documents on health and housing, including a promise to build 80,000 social and affordable homes on public land in the coming years.

Asked about tax cuts in the budget, he replied that Labour’s “clear position right now is we can’t afford tax cuts in this country. We have enormous deficiencies in the public services. Look at health and mental healthcare for children and adolescents. You have the situation where vulnerable children have no place to go and their families are at their wits end.”

Mr Howlin said the party would run some 30 candidates in the next election. And he expects it to make gains based on a stronger performance in the local elections.

He said the party would be working on its red lines this weekend. Labour, he added, would be running as a stand-alone party with no deals and no alignments.

“If we support anyone either in government or out of government, it will be exclusively on signing up on our red lines,” he said.