Labour would rebuild Irish relationship, says shadow NI secretary

Louise Haigh believes new aggressive approach by Britain is counter-productive

Northern Ireland is seldom the subject of partisan disagreement at Westminster, and the current Labour leadership has sought to avoid talking about Brexit as far as possible.

Yet Labour's shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh hauled Brandon Lewis before the House of Commons on Wednesday to face an urgent question about the British government's unilateral postponement of checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea.

The unilateral action, which the European Union judges to be in breach of the Northern Ireland protocol, caused outrage in Brussels and Dublin, and has raised red flags on Capitol Hill.

Britain's new, aggressive approach coincided with the appointment of former Brexit negotiator David Frost as the minister in charge of relations with the EU, and Haigh believes it is counter-productive.


“I think David Frost’s approach is purely combative, and that’s tactical rather than strategic. But it doesn’t serve anybody’s interests. It doesn’t serve Northern Ireland but it doesn’t serve the British government’s interests either to be unnecessarily combative with the EU. And it’s really difficult to say what their long-term strategy is and in whose interests it serves,” she told The Irish Times.

“My greatest fear is that they are prepared to use Northern Ireland as an arena for indefinite conflict with the EU.”

Irish roots

The 33 year-old Sheffield Heeley MP has been shadow Northern Ireland secretary for almost a year, stepping in to the job when her predecessor Tony Lloyd became ill and taking it over permanently a few weeks later when he decided to step down to focus on his recovery.

She has Irish roots in the person of her grandmother Peggy O'Shea from Mitchelstown, Co Cork, and she recalls her father singing Irish songs when she was growing up.

Labour leader Keir Starmer, who served as a human rights adviser to the PSNI, takes a close interest in Northern Ireland, and shares Ms Haigh's concern that it is suffering collateral damage from Boris Johnson's Brexit deal.

Ms Haigh wants maximum flexibility from the EU in implementing the protocol, pointing to the joint EU-UK commitment to ensuring that it should impact as minimally as possible on the communities in Northern Ireland.

"In order to get that we need to be a trusted partner. And the fact that Minister Simon Coveney described us as a partner that can no longer be trusted is absolutely devastating, because stability in Northern Ireland has always been dependent on a strong, positive relationship between the British and Irish governments," she said.

“That was the basis on which the Good Friday Agreement was secured, and it’s protected its stability in the 20 years since. But that is now being recklessly undermined by this Tory government.

"Boris Johnson negotiated the protocol. He negotiated the institutions and committees that are designed to uphold it and underpin it, so we should be using those to reach joint solutions."


The relationship between Britain and Ireland has been battered by Brexit in recent years, but Ms Haigh says a Labour government would prioritise rebuilding it. She believes that, now that Britain has left the EU, the relationship with its closest neighbour is more important than ever.

"Ireland shares our core values on the UN Security Council and are the co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. And they will be our partners in managing the fallout of the prime minister's Brexit deal on these islands," she said.

“Britain’s interest does not lie in cutting ourselves off from our closest friends and partners by provoking hostility with them. Labour has always believed in a close partnership with the Irish government. It was essential to securing the Good Friday Agreement in the first place, and we know that it’s very crucial now.”