UK Parliament unreasonable over Brexit, says former Irish premier

The position of the UK Parliament over Brexit has been criticised by a former Irish premier as “unreasonable”.

Brian Cowen was addressing a meeting of the Diversity Europe Group of the European Economic Social Committee at Riddel Hall in Belfast.

“There is less than 42 days left, there is a great failure in the negotiating process generally – not attributing any blame to anybody – that we have to come to this point where we don’t have the clarity that one would expect after two years of arduous negotiation,” he said.

“We did get a certain amount of clarity in the Withdrawal Agreement which was so wrongly rejected by Parliament. One of the reasons it was shaped the way it was shaped was that before the negotiation started, ‘we don’t want to be part of the customs union’ became a red line, ‘we don’t want to be part of the single market’ became a red line, ‘we want independent trade policy’, another red line.

“If you are going to go into a negotiation with that level of preconditionality where it’s a question of agree to these red lines before we start talking then we shouldn’t be surprised if it comes out the way it comes out.”

The former Taoiseach stressed his belief that there will be a trade agreement, and that backstop arrangements are “highly unlikely” to ever come into operation.

“The backstop will not come into operation and yet we have a Parliament withholding agreement to allow that transition period to take place so that negotiation can happen on the basis that it is there as a contingency in the first place,” he said.

“I just don’t think it is reasonable. I wouldn’t be popular for saying it, but I don’t think it is reasonable.

“I could have taken the position, I don’t think it’s reasonable we open negotiations on the basis you won’t even consider joining the customs union, but I have to respect the British Government’s position, they don’t wish to join the customs union, I accepted it, Barnier accepted it, the 27 accepted it. We were prepared to hardwire a harder version of Brexit in the negotiations, and yet we are not allowed to have a contingency arrangement that protects the integrity of the single market.

“It’s in all our interests here on this island that that be the case, do people want the situation where the international supply lines that come across borders all the time, that that ends?”

Mr Cowen, who served as Taoiseach from 2008 to 2011, also blasted any suggestion that there is a sovereignty issue at play as “bogus”.

“It’s not an issue because the Good Friday Agreement makes it very clear that the consent of the people of Northern Ireland is required in respect of any constitutional change and that is it,” he said.

“The idea there is some agenda, some possibility of conspiracy here, we have to leave that sort of debate behind us at this stage, it’s of no relevance, frankly it insults people’s intelligence.

“What we are trying to do is maintain the quality of life for ordinary people.”

The theme of the meeting was the implications of Brexit for civil society and the peace process.

Looking back at the temperature of previous relations between the UK and Republic of Ireland in the 1940s-50s, Mr Cowen said it was “effectively a cold war”, adding it was a pity that the two nations could not have learned sooner from the bridge-building which took place in Europe following the Second World War and the evolution which led to the formation of the EU.