Get your voice heard on Brexit talks, Corbyn urges NI politicians

Minister of State Helen McEntee welcomes Labour leader’s opposition to hard border


Northern Ireland needs a voice at the Brexit talks table in London, British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has said, as he urged Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party to reach a deal on restoring Stormont.

“Please, to the parties in Stormont: you have to come together to re-form a government there. I hope they understand that message and I hope that we can make very rapid progress on that,” Mr Corbyn declared in Derry.

“It is impossible to go through a period so crucial as Brexit negotiations without a voice for Northern Ireland being made at the table by the political classes in NI,” he told Derry Chamber of Commerce.

The local economy in Derry “depends absolutely” on the ability of local businesses to travel freely across the Border with the Republic, said the Labour leader, on the second day of a visit to NI.

“The idea of a hard Border is impossible to conceive that it would do anything other than seriously damage this area and damage the life-chances of people in this area in a place which has already suffered.

“Any kind of border, physical border, virtual reality border, technological border, whatever, would be very damaging to the economy,” he said, sharply criticising the performance of Conservative prime minister, Theresa May.

Emphasising that he wanted to see a Brexit deal that protects jobs across the United Kingdom, Mr Corbyn yet again favoured a customs deal with the European Union and continued tariff-free access after it leaves.

Minister of State for European Affairs Helen McEntee welcomed Mr Corbyn’s commitment to avoid a hard border.

She repeated the Government’s call for the British government to agree to a “legally operable text” around the backstop option post-Brexit that keeps Northern Ireland aligned with the European Union’s customs union and single market in the event of no alternative proposal to maintain an invisible border.

“Our preferred option continues to be the closest possible relationship and any proposals to that effect are welcome but the backstop must be dealt with separately; it would ensure no border or related customs checks or controls in the absence of a close relationship,” she told The Irish Times.

“Irrespective of Mr Corbyn’s comments the British government must still come forward with the proposals on the backstop and we need to see sufficient progress on this by the June European Council. I remain optimistic that this can happen.”

During his time in Derry and Belfast, Mr Corbyn heard mounting concerns about the post-Brexit existence of the Border and, indeed, concerns about the wider Brexit exit deal.

Under a “backstop” deal reached last December, Northern Ireland would continue to follow EU regulations necessary to ensure that no hard Border is needed, though this deal is increasingly being questioned now by leading British Cabinet members.

“Crucial decisions are going to be made in the next three months, and I understand very clearly the message that you have given me here this morning,” he told his audience.

Meanwhile, the Labour leader said the situation where unelected civil servants have had to take major policy decisions because of the lack of the NI Executive and Assembly cannot continue.

“It is unconscionable that you have civil servants making major decisions, then challenged by the courts, with elected politicians having no say whatsoever,” he declared.

Welcoming the Labour leader, the president of Derry’s Chamber of Commerce, Jennifer McKeever, said Derry is “the city at the heart of the Brexit conundrum”.

Delivering a strong message that 90 per cent of local businesses want to stay in the European Union’s customs union and single market, she said they serve two counties, two countries, two jurisdictions.

“Every day, thousands of us cross the Border for work, for education, for health and for trade. The EU is not a foreign, far-away bureaucracy – it’s a couple of miles from where we sit.

“It’s where many of our staff live and where we find our customers and trading partners. Everybody accepts that it would be unacceptable to reintroduce a hard Border in Ireland.”

However, she warned that it is “infinitely more difficult to understand” the declarations from London politicians that the UK “can pull out of the customs union and single market” and avoid a hard Border.

“The truth is we just cannot see how you can square this circle: to both leave the EU and to ensure no Border – to create the unique solution for NI Ireland and to do it without damaging our peace and prosperity.”

Speaking directly to Mr Corbyn, she said the customs union and single market offer a market of 500 million people: “It’s under those conditions that we have built the business community that you are sitting with this morning.”

Warning that local patience is “wearing thin”, she insisted that the British government’s favoured options of a customs partnership, or a technological deal to solve Border issues do not “inspire confidence”.

Urging more British politicians to visit Northern Ireland, Bonnie Anley, the chair of Foyle Port, said it is “vital” that they “experience and see” the day-to-day realities that are now facing local firms.