Barnier is alienating Northern Ireland’s Unionists with his cynical behaviour on the Irish border

Barnier is alienating Northern Ireland’s Unionists with his cynical behaviour on the Irish border

Michel Barnier’s recent visit to Northern Ireland turned into something of a disaster. The trip was billed as an opportunity to hear a range of views on Brexit and the Irish border. It also provided an opportunity for local representatives to meet with Barnier. This is all the more important given the lack of a devolved administration in Northern Ireland and the consequent lack of formal local involvement in negotiations.

Rather than achieving its stated aims, Barnier’s trip merely served to heighten tensions over the border issue and alienate Northern Ireland’s Unionist community. DUP Leader Arlene Foster issued a predictably scathing attack on Mr Barnier, making a number of allegations that he strongly denied. Robin Swann, Leader of the more moderate Ulster Unionists, issued a more balanced but critical statement, making it clear that Northern Ireland’s constitutional position was not up for negotiation.

At the heart of Unionists’ concerns is the perceived threat to Northern Ireland’s constitutional position being posed by the EU. I have long argued that the Commission are not negotiating in good faith. The Commission are deliberately pursuing a policy of trying to force the UK into a Customs Union, using the Irish border question as their fulcrum.

Mr Barnier used his trip to reiterate the Commission’s red line on the Irish border. Barnier again confirmed that the Commission would not approve a final deal without an agreed back stop position on the Irish border. The proposed backstop would keep Northern Ireland effectively within the EU and erect a customs and regulatory barrier within the United Kingdom.

He knows that this option is totally unacceptable to Northern Ireland’s Unionist MPs – whose support is crucial to pass any final Brexit deal in Parliament. Unionists rightly view this proposal as a threat to the constitutional integrity of the UK and a direct breach of the Belfast Agreement, specifically the principle of consent.

Barnier claims to be open to alternatives on the Irish border. However, the Commission’s behaviour exposes this as a lie. The Commission continue to reject even the most modest customs regulation at the Irish border. The UK’s efforts to propose a soft border through the use of technology and pre-registration have been cynically rejected.

The only alternative the Commission will accept to Northern Ireland remaining in the Customs Union is for the UK as a whole to agree a Customs Union with the EU. This seems increasingly unlikely, given the attitude of Cabinet Ministers.

This increases the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit scenario. Ironically, the biggest loser in this eventuality would be the Irish Government, who have eagerly facilitated the Commission’s strategy on the Irish border. However, it would also be a deeply unfortunate outcome for the economies of both the EU and UK.

This is clearly a risk the Commission are prepared to take. I believe they see an opportunity with the Irish border and Theresa May’s reliance on Unionist support in Parliament to force the UK into a Customs Union. They may even hope to put the Prime Minister in an impossible position where she cannot pass any Brexit deal in Parliament, in the hope of forcing a general election and returning a Labour Government – which would be much more amenable to their demands – in its place.