Johnson’s Brexit strategy ‘contradicts’ Belfast Agreement

Former taoiseach says peace agreement ‘is all about convergence’, not divergence

‘The more regulatory divergence there is between the two parts of Ireland, the more border controls or other barriers there will have to be,’ said former taoiseach John Bruton. File image: David Sleator/The Irish Times

‘The more regulatory divergence there is between the two parts of Ireland, the more border controls or other barriers there will have to be,’ said former taoiseach John Bruton. File image: David Sleator/The Irish Times

 

The hardline Brexit being proposed by Boris Johnson’s government, poses “an existential threat” to the Belfast Agreement, former taoiseach John Bruton has said.

In an outspoken defence of the backstop, he argued on Monday evening that “states are entitled to withdraw from treaties.

“But they are not entitled to so in a way that nullifies the value of other treaties that still bind them. They are obliged to take account of the effect of their withdrawal on neighbouring states.

“The UK is still bound by the Belfast Agreement of 1998, and the Anglo-Irish Treaty that underpins it.”

Mr Bruton, also a former EU ambassador, was delivering the “Halligan lecture” at the Irish Institute for International and European Affairs in Brussels.

“It is the UK that is now taking the initiative to renounce the EU treaties, so it is for the UK to take the primary responsibility for finding a way to reconcile that renunciation with the other treaty commitments it has made, notably its legal agreement made in Belfast in 1998,” Mr Bruton said.

“That is how international relations work, and why renouncing treaty commitments is a rare occurrence.

“Unfortunately, the UK never faced up to that responsibility.”

The former taoiseach said he was most perturbed by the explicit insistence by the British prime minister of the need for future regulatory divergence between the UK and EU. Quoting Mr Johnson’s letter to EU leaders , Mr Bruton said that “the point of Brexit, according to Mr Johnson, is to ‘diverge’ from EU standards on environment, product and labour standards.”

“Given that the Belfast Agreement is all about convergence - not divergence - between the two parts of Ireland, and between Britain and Ireland,” he said, “there is a head on contradiction between Mr Johnson’s proclaimed commitment to the Belfast Agreement, and his commitment that the UK will progressively and intentionally diverge from EU standards.

“The more regulatory divergence there is between the two parts of Ireland, the more border controls or other barriers there will have to be.”

He said it was crucial that the issue be faced up to in the withdrawal agreement. To leave until the next phase of negotiations on the future relationship would risk it being pushed aside and the marginalisation of Ireland.

‘EU concessions’

The EU’s willingness, even at a late stage, to revert from the idea of an all-UK backstop to the original proposal of a Northern-Ireland-only backstop, would be a significant concession, Mr Bruton said, that could hurt Irish exporters. But it should be recognised by the UK as a significant concession.

“When concessions to the UK in EU negotiations are often not recognised by the UK as concessions, they are often just pocketed without a word, and becoming a platform for another demand,” he said.

Mr Bruton took issue with the Brexiteer claims that they were simply involved in a democratic exercise: “One of the fundaments of a successful union between different nations is a decision-making process that shows respect for minorities and smaller nations.”

“Northern Ireland and Scotland had not voted for Brexit. The purely majoritarian referendum allowed two of the UK’s nations to overrule the other two. That would not happen in our European Union,” he said.

And he contested the DUP contention that border posts in the Irish Sea would constitute a threat to the constitutional integrity of the UK. ”All international agreements impinge on sovereignty,” he said

“But the sovereignty of a state primarily consists in its having a monopoly on the use of force within its territory. The backstop does not diminish UK sovereignty in that way.”

In a return to an old theme of his, Mr Bruton called for the introduction of transnational lists in the European elections and the direct election of the president of the Commission “separately from the parliament using a system of proportional representation”.

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