British Prime Minister Theresa May began a tour of the United Kingdom on November 27 to drum up support for the Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union after warning her own backbenchers that crashing out of the EU will have severe economic consequences.
A major objection for the historically Protestant-led Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is the so-called backstop agreement. For the DUP, the idea that a part of the UK will be in a different customs regime than the rest of the country is unacceptable.
May insists that “the backstop” will never be implemented, however, it is unclear how the UK and the EU will reach a new compromise on Ireland after being unable to negotiate for a settlement for the last two years. Postponing the deadlock is not desirable for the DUP, because under the current parliamentary alliance they have more political leverage over the British government.
Meanwhile, the historically Catholic Republican parties in Northern Ireland do not have the same political leverage. Since 2017, there is no power-sharing between Unionists and Republicans as envisaged by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. In February 2018, the Republican party Sinn Féin released documents suggesting an agreement had been struck on power-sharing, only for the DUP to scuttle the deal.
At present, there is no unity government and public opinion is polarised due to the Brexit political deadlock. The DUP has direct political leverage in London, something the pro-EU Republicans do not have.
Amidst this political context, New Europe sought out Martina Anderson, a Member of the European Parliament for Northern Ireland. Anderson is not only a prominent Sinn Féin member but also a former member of the IRA.
She spent 13 years in prison and was released as a condition of the Good Friday Agreement. She has served several unity governments becoming Junior Minister to Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in 2011-2012. Anderson is clear on two things: there will be no border on Northern Ireland and the war is over.
New Europe (NE): There is a political stalemate in the House of Commons that will not allow a Brexit deal. What is your projection? Would you encourage the opposition to vote for the deal?
Martina Anderson (MA): Britain has a government in chaos, in a chaotic parliament.
Let us be clear: the British House of Commons has to agree to the Agreement and in its totality, including the backstop agreement. And it should be realised that the backstop is better than a crash.
Crashing out of the EU will cause immediate and severe disruption. Phytosanitary controls will have to be put in place for livestock, disrupting a fully integrated agricultural sector. Aviation will be disrupted as Britain will no longer be part of the European Aviation Safety Agency, and there will be no deal to replace these regulations. This will have severe economic consequences.
Britain must decide what is best for Britain, but we need to take care of Irish interests. The backstop is not ideal, but the least bad choice we have before us.
Although it is welcome that the detail in this Withdrawal Agreement will help prevent physical infrastructure on the border in Ireland and provide some protection for our local businesses- it is a million miles away from where it needs to be in terms of rights.
Ireland is in a mess due to the partition, and Brexit has made this mess even more evident.
The people in Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to Remain in the EU. It should be understood that the backstop is better than a crash. If the British House of Commons doesn’t vote for this deal, then we know what will happen. The EU is preparing for this eventuality.
So, it’s over to the British. We have done what we can, now it’s their responsibility.
NE: If we do have a hard Brexit, hardline Brexiteers and the Democratic Unionist Party signal that they are ready to place the onus on border-construction to the EU, meaning to the Republic of Ireland, can you see the Republic building a border or the UK not building one?
MA: The DUP does not speak for the majority of the people in Northern Ireland. People should stop presenting the DUP as the yardstick for public opinion- because they aren’t.
The people of Ireland do not want a physical infrastructure to divide the island. They voted overwhelmingly to Remain.
From the beginning of the process, when David Cameron called for the referendum in 2015, Sinn Féin warned that the DUP wanted to wreck the Good Friday Agreement. They want a border to divide the island, we need to recall that they are the only party that did not support the Good Friday Agreement.
Their only dilemma now is exerting what will be their short-lived influence on the British government through their partnership. The DUP said they will not be supporting the deal, so it is clear that they do want a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Let us be clear: there is no Good Brexit.
If there is a crash out, there will be no de facto transition period. There will then be a series of measures which will transform people’s lives for the worst. So it was always inevitable that the discussion will shift to what people want- there will be huge pressure for a unity poll.
And we are convinced people want unity.
NE: If the UK moves unilaterally towards a hard Brexit, what will be the effect for the transborder communities of Ireland? Is peace in Northern Ireland an irreversible reality?
MA: The war is over. We will not allow our peace to go into the dustbin of history.
The war came to us. We did not start it. And we will defend our peace process.
That’s why the people will demand a unity poll. And I believe the people will see that a United Ireland is by far the best option to safeguard our peace process. To this effect, there are already conversations happening across the island- this process will only be accelerated.
NE: If a Brexit agreement, with an acceptable Irish solution, is not found then we will have a negative precedent on two more borders, namely Gibraltar and Cyprus. Have you talked to your colleagues from Spain and Cyprus? What do you think should be the next step?
MA: These were not even glamping considerations during the EU membership referendum debate in 2016.
What British bases are doing in Cyprus, I don’t know. How everyday life in Gibraltar will evolve, I don’t know. We talk with our comrades in our group GUE/NGL about these issues, but Sinn Féin does not interfere in their affairs.
It is for their own people to choose where they want to live and what relationship they want to have with the European Union. That is not for Sinn Féin to say.
NE: If a solution is not found, then the Good Friday Agreement envisages a unity poll. Can you envisage a political roadmap towards such a referendum? In an interview with BB4, the Brexit spokesperson for the DUP, Sammy Wilson, said that in such a referendum a simple majority may not be enough.
MA: Unfortunately, the Good Friday Agreement specifies that it is within the gift of the British Secretary of State to call a unity poll; those conditions are specified.
Make no mistake: there will be diplomatic pressure on the British government to call a referendum. Given the disruption that the north of Ireland has caused in their negotiations with the EU, it will be hard for the British government to resist calling a unity poll- which we will demand.
As for the terms of a unity poll, we still have democracy.
If a 52% majority in Britain can drag Irish people out of the EU and separate the island, a comparable majority should be enough to unite the island.
Of course, we should be more ambitious, but, it is not up to the DUP to frame the terms of a future referendum.