ANDREW ADONIS: In praise of the backstop - Theresa May's greatest triumph

PUBLISHED: 10:45 24 January 2019

Theresa May arrives to attend a church service near her Maidenhead constituency. Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA Wire.

Theresa May arrives to attend a church service near her Maidenhead constituency. Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA Wire.

Readers will know ANDREW ADONIS is not one for giving Theresa May praise but on this occasion he has.

As regular readers will attest, I am not in the habit of heaping praise on Theresa May. Her premiership has been a disaster. She has pursued hard Brexit with ignorance, arrogance and incompetence. She has failed to tackle any of the ‘burning injustices’ she deplored on the steps of 10 Downing Street 30 months ago. Almost all of them have got worse.

But for one achievement I come to praise May – the Irish backstop, maybe the single most unpopular thing she has done in the eyes of the Conservative party.

This isn’t only because – as I have been saying for a year now – the backstop is the ever more gangrenous Achilles heel of Brexit. But also because it is right. It is a recognition that the peace and security of Ireland are a critical British concern and that the Good Friday Agreement shouldn’t be traded for Brexit, whatever Farage and Rees-Mogg say.

Negotiation of the backstop is the single most impressive – indeed the only impressive – thing May has done as prime minister. She has put country before party, and followed John Major in putting the peace and prosperity of Ireland before the prejudices of English nationalism, something not common amongst English leaders in the imperial centuries since Henry VIII and Oliver Cromwell, much lauded by Rees-Mogg.

There is a third reason to praise the backstop. If by some misfortune we do Brexit, it may well be the bridge to Britain’s reentry into Europe.

If Brexit happens, the peace and prosperity of Northern Ireland – and Ireland as a whole – depend upon Ireland being able to forge an in-betweener status, in the EU while fully open to Britain. That is what the backstop enables. And that, of course, is why the ERG and their DUP allies wish to kill it.

On the surface Rees-Mogg and Arlene Foster – a more sinister pairing I struggle to imagine – make claims about unionism and about sovereignty. Both are, in the words of Barry Gardiner and Michael Gove, complete bollocks.

If Foster cared about Northern Ireland having a different set of rules to the rest of the UK, then gay Northern Irish people would be able to marry and women would not be forced to get on a plane or a ferry to access the healthcare they choose and need.

If Rees-Mogg really believes the UK should be able to unilaterally leave any international agreement without an arbitration process then he has clearly abandoned any hope of signing any future trade deals with anyone.

No, the reason that the Brexiters hate the backstop is that they know that what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

Imagine Brexit Britain in 2025. Foreign investment has dropped off a cliff, the pound has sunk to new lows and European trade is in steep decline. Starved of European workers, the NHS, care homes and hotels are on the brink of collapse. House prices have plummeted but no-one has benefited because interest rates have spiked and mortgages are an impossible dream for the young.

We are a smaller, poorer country in decline. And we look wistfully across the Irish Sea to Belfast, capital of an increasingly prosperous region that has carved for itself a niche as an entrepôt between the UK and the EU. Ireland’s health service benefits from the free flow of people. Their farmers export happily and tariff-free to the EU while their peers in the UK call it a day.

Prime minister Tugendhat, leading a nation in shock after Scottish independence, starts asking publicly: why can’t England be more like Northern Ireland? Why are we burdened with barriers and borders while Ireland thrives?

Why indeed.

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