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Solution to Brexit’s biggest problem is in Ireland

Anxiety mounting both sides of Border over no deal risk, writes Keir Starmer

Labour’s plan for Brexit in the short term means a transitional period on the same basic terms as now, in the customs union and single market. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

One of my biggest frustrations about the referendum campaign was the lack of focus on how Brexit would affect communities on both sides of the Irish Border.

This was particularly personal for me having spent five years as a human rights adviser to the Northern Ireland Policing Board. I have seen first-hand how membership of the EU helped to pave the way for peace in Northern Ireland, to broker the Good Friday Agreement and to provide a framework for close cross-Border cooperation.

But although the Irish Border was ignored during the referendum, it has become a dominant issue in the negotiations.

During my visit to Dublin this week, I look forward to discussing this further with the Irish Government.

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For all sides, there is now a realisation that Brexit represents a formidable challenge for both the UK and for Ireland – not just to prevent a hard border, but also to ensure continued cooperation in a whole range of areas.

The question is how do we overcome these challenges? How do we protect our respective national interests? How do we preserve our current close links and continue to build on the foundations for a shared future?

Answering this was never going to be simple. This was never going to be, as Liam Fox pretended, “the easiest negotiation in human history”.

A small number of Brexiteer MPs believe these are questions best ignored. They remain under the illusion that the Irish Border is an imagined or exaggerated problem, or that new and uninvented technology will provide an answer. This is not only irresponsible, but also misunderstands the significance of the open border as the manifestation of peace. It’s about identity, not technology.

A lasting solution

Anxiety on both sides of the Irish Border about the risk of no deal – or the failure to agree a legally binding backstop – is real. And it is growing.

It is not a myth. It is shared by all communities. It requires a grown up and lasting solution. But 18 months after Article 50 was triggered, Theresa May’s government remains incapable of providing it.

The ideological red lines laid down in the prime minister’s 2016 party conference speech – out of the customs union, arms-length from the single market, no role for the European Court of Justice – are the major stumbling block. In my view, those red lines are fundamentally incompatible with avoiding a hard border in Ireland.

As a result, the UK Government has tied itself in knots. The Brexit talks remain stalled and a legally binding backstop is yet to be agreed.

The Chequers proposals were supposed to be a step in the right direction, but it is increasingly clear that they cannot command a majority in the House of Commons or form the basis of an agreement with the EU.

So, if we are to avoid the onward march to no deal, flexibility and a renewed sense of urgency are needed on both sides.

This is particularly true on the issue of the Irish backstop, which is now the most pressing issue in the negotiations and must be resolved in a matter of weeks. Both sides made a solemn commitment in December to deliver a legally binding backstop, both sides must now deliver.

Shared prosperity

But while the biggest challenge of Brexit may lie in Ireland, so can the solution.

Labour has always emphasised that the only acceptable Brexit deal is one that builds a close future partnership with the EU based on values of cooperation, collaboration, shared prosperity and common rights.

Those principles have underpinned our plan for Brexit.

In the short term, that means a transitional period on the same basic terms as now, in the customs union and single market.

In the longer term, that means negotiating a new comprehensive customs union with the EU which avoids the need for customs checks and tariffs. That must then be coupled with a strong single market deal with the right balance of rights and obligations based on common standards, protections and regulations, and underpinned by shared institutions.

It is a plan that can protect jobs, living standards and rights and build a strong new partnership with the EU. But it also provides a basis for addressing the challenges Brexit poses in Ireland, not least avoiding a hard border. Crucially, Labour’s approach would also reduce pressure on negotiations over the Irish backstop by providing a clear framework for a lasting future partnership.

With just a month to go until the next crucial summit in Brussels, there is now an urgent need for real progress in the Brexit process.

More of the same simply will not do.

We need a fresh approach, one that recognises it is only through a combination of a new customs union, a strong single market deal and shared institutions that we find a solution that works for Ireland, the UK and across the EU.

Keir Starmer is Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, former Director of Public Prosecutions and former human rights adviser to the Northern Ireland Policing Board