Can Theresa May set out a viable Brexit vision? If not Labour is ready | Keir Starmer

The government has avoided the issue for too long and has no idea how to fix the Northern Ireland border problem. But we do

Nearly 20 years ago, the Good Friday agreement was signed by the UK government, the Irish government and eight of the political parties in Northern Ireland. After decades of violence and bloodshed, during which more than 3,600 people were killed, it provided the basis for the relative peace and development we have seen in Northern Ireland since. The invisible and open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is, as the Irish government has said, arguably “the most tangible symbol of the peace process”.

Against that background, the UK’s exit from the EU undoubtedly presents a significant and unique challenge. That challenge has been on the prime minister’s desk for 20 months, but we are still waiting to hear how she intends to overcome it. The dilemma facing Theresa May is one of her own making. The red lines she laid out in her Lancaster House speech last January – including no customs union and no membership of the single market – are incompatible with the commitments she made later in the year to protect north-south cooperation and to avoid a hard border in Ireland.

The agreement she signed up to in December was a promise to the people of Northern Ireland that there would be “no physical infrastructure or related checks and controls” after Brexit. A solemn promise, rightly made. Yet there are some in her party who, in recent weeks, have argued that the government should abandon the Good Friday agreement and accept the return of a hard border as the inevitable consequence of the Brexit process. The prime minister should have no truck with such reckless talk. The pursuit of an extreme Brexit cannot come at the cost of peace in Northern Ireland.

May is running out of time and running out of road. The time for leadership has come. At the start of the week, Labour showed that leadership by answering the question that this government has ducked for too long. In setting out Labour’s vision for Britain after Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn made clear that Labour would seek to negotiate a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union to ensure that there are no tariffs with Europe and to help to avoid a hard border. Any such deal would also have to ensure the UK would have a say in future trade deals negotiated with the EU. He went on to spell out that Labour would negotiate a new and strong relationship with the single market, with no new impediments to trade and no reduction in rights, standards and protections. This combination is intended to hardwire the benefits of the single market and the customs union into the final agreement and to secure a deal that maintains Britain’s full access to European markets.

Labour’s priorities are clear: jobs and the economy must come first; not party interests or ideological fantasies. And there is widespread support for Labour’s approach – at home and abroad – including from the Confederation of British Industry, the Institute of Directors and the trade union movement. Labour’s approach is not about what is politically right, it is about what is right for the country. We want a deal that protects the economy and works for every corner of the country, including Northern Ireland.

The test for May when she delivers her speech on Friday afternoon is whether she can follow Labour’s lead. Can she overcome the deep divisions within her government and set out a coherent, credible vision for Britain’s future relationship with the EU after Brexit? Can she stand up to the extreme Brexiteers within her party and lead the country through the most difficult negotiations in our recent history? It’s a test of leadership, strength and resilience. If she fails this test, Labour is waiting in the wings.

• Keir Starmer is Labour’s shadow secretary of state for exiting the European Union

Contributor

Keir Starmer

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The Guardian view on Jeremy Corbyn and Ireland: all about the border | Editorial
Editorial: Questions about the Labour leader’s republican views dominated his trip to Belfast. But Brexit is the key question for Northern Irish politics now

Editorial

24, May, 2018 @5:29 PM

Article image
Labour should ask if Brexit is the right decision, not just push for a softer version | Owen Smith
A hard border in Ireland would be disastrous – but so would the other consequences of leaving the European Union, writes shadow Northern Ireland secretary Owen Smith

Owen Smith

23, Mar, 2018 @6:00 AM

Article image
There are three ways out of the Irish border impasse. All are closed to Theresa May | Peter Leary
A hard border means checks on car boots and lorries. It also means Britain reneging on its first deal with Brussels, writes academic and author Peter Leary

Peter Leary

01, Mar, 2018 @1:05 PM

Article image
The Guardian view on Brexit and Ireland: the forging of folly | Editorial
Editorial: Hard Brexiters view the Irish backstop not as a way of keeping the peace but as a devious mechanism to force Britain to march in lockstep with EU regulations they are desperate to get out of

Editorial

05, Feb, 2019 @6:54 PM

Article image
Johnson’s unworkable Brexit plan won’t solve the Northern Ireland border issue | Katy Hayward
The ‘two-border’ solution is cost-free for Britain, with all the consequences being felt on the island of Ireland, says Katy Hayward, author of Bordering on Brexit

Katy Hayward

03, Oct, 2019 @12:20 PM

Article image
Ireland has come too far to be dragged back in time by Brexit | Paul McGrade
Let there be no return to unwinnable debates about identity, says former diplomat Paul McGrade

Paul McGrade

13, Sep, 2018 @11:32 AM

Article image
The Guardian view on the Brexit backstop: getting Ireland wrong again | Editorial
Editorial: History is repeating itself as English Conservatives once again fail to understand the Irish dimension of their doctrinaire political obsessions

Editorial

06, Dec, 2018 @6:54 PM

Article image
Was Corbyn’s speech a bold Brexit vision, or playing politics? | Owen Jones, Giles Fraser, Katy Balls, David Shariatmadari and Faiza Shaheen
Five writers respond after Corbyn set out his plans for a UK-EU customs union

Owen Jones, Giles Fraser, Katy Balls, David Shariatmadari and Faiza Shaheen

26, Feb, 2018 @12:31 PM

Article image
Listen to Northern Irish voters, Theresa May – not the DUP | Conor Gearty
Arlene Foster has no mandate to push for a hard Brexit, says academic Conor Gearty

Conor Gearty

29, Oct, 2018 @9:00 AM

Article image
The Guardian view on the Brexit talks: tied to a mean-minded fantasy | Editorial
Editorial: The prime minister persists in trying to cobble together a Commons majority behind a form of Brexit that offers no guarantees about the future

Editorial

07, Feb, 2019 @6:30 PM