Played up is right. Labour Party front bencher, the shadow trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, a former NIO minister, has apologised for “informal remarks in a meeting last month“, in particular, that his “use of the word ‘shibboleth’ in its sense of ‘password’ or ‘test of membership’ gave the impression that I thought the Good Friday Agreement was in any way outdated or unimportant. I absolutely do not.” Which is fine. But his recorded comments, last month, during a Q&A session after a speech at a think-tank in Brussels still represent the most accurate description of what is actually going on when we hear of dire threats to the 1998 Belfast Agreement from Brexit.
Here are a selection from the various reports
Barry Gardiner, the shadow trade secretary, has described the Good Friday agreement as a shibboleth that was being “played up” in the Brexit negotiations for economic rather than political reasons.
Answering questions at a thinktank session in Brussels last month, Gardiner suggested there was no reason to fear that a border with customs controls would lead to a return of paramilitary activity.
He also said: “I think we must also recognise that there are real economic reasons why people have played up the issue of the Irish border and the need to have the shibboleth of the Good Friday agreement. And that is because it is hugely in the Republic of Ireland’s economic interest to make sure that there is no tariff and no external border there.”
The remarks, from one of Labour’s inner group of Brexit decision-makers, strike a markedly different tone to the party’s existing policy. Jeremy Corbyn restated Labour’s opposition to the re-emergence of a hard border as a principle of the future relationship in a keynote speech in February.
In the key passage, which also signed Labour up to staying in a customs union, the Labour leader said the Good Friday agreement, whose 20th anniversary falls on Tuesday, was a great achievement. “We must continue to support the restoration of the Northern Ireland assembly and to ensure we maintain the situation of no hard border in Northern Ireland,” he said.
In prepared remarks delivered in Brussels and posted on his website, Gardiner echoed that position. “Labour called for a deal that delivers tariff free goods trade … preserving the status quo in Ireland without a hard border so as not to jeopardise the 20 years of peace on that island between north and south,” he said.
But in a Q&A afterwards, he suggested there would be little such threat. A history of previous paramilitary attacks on British military border posts “doesn’t mean putting in a normal border relationship when one party is no longer in the EU will bring back paramilitary activity”, Gardiner said. “That is to confuse cause and effect.” [added emphasis throughout]
In the audio recording Mr Gardiner said it was “hugely in the Republic of Ireland’s economic interest to make sure there is no tariff and no external border there”.
He added the UK leaving the EU did “not mean putting in a normal border relationship when one party is no longer in the EU will bring back paramilitary activity”.
And there were “very good political reasons” for playing up the issue too, he said.
“Sinn Fein – who are trusted colleagues – want to see the unification of Ireland. That is a political objective of Sinn Fein.
“But that doesn’t mean a normal border will bring back paramilitary activity.” [added emphasis]
He said his remarks were “deeply unfashionable”.
Unfashionable in some quarters, maybe. But still true. And from another BBC report
Speaking about the “six tests” Labour set the government to decide whether to support the final Brexit deal in a Commons vote, he said: “Well let’s just take one test – the exact same benefits. Bollocks.
“Always has been bollocks and it remains it.
“We know very well that we cannot have the exact same benefits and actually it would have made sense – because it was the Tories that said they were going to secure the exact same benefits – and our position should have been to say they have said they are going to secure the exact same benefits and we are going to hold them to that standard.”
He said that should have been the Labour policy rather than saying “we think we can secure the exact same benefits as well”.
And back to the Guardian for a separate report
Gardiner is recorded ridiculing the proposal to have the same benefits – “It’s bollocks. Always has been bollocks” – and goes on to dismiss the whole strategy of the six tests.
“We know very well that we cannot have the exact same benefits. And actually, you know, it would have made sense, because it was the Tories that said they were going to secure the exact same benefits, and our position should have been precisely to say: ‘They have said that they will secure the exact same benefits and we are going to hold them to that standard.’”
Gardiner then pours scorn on the idea of holding a “meaningful vote” in parliament on the final deal – Labour’s proudest achievement during the passage of the bill.
“You tell me what a meaningful vote is? Is a meaningful vote one where you have alternatives and you reject one and you opt for the other. If so, what are the alternatives? … What we’re going to have is, at best, clarity about the divorce settlement.”
He suggested the most likely result would be the downfall of Theresa May, but even that would not resolve anything.
“What is the new prime minister, the new leader of the Conservative party going to be able to do as a result of that parliamentary vote? Do they go back and try to renegotiate a different deal in Europe? Well there’s no time for that. Do they hold a general election?”
Labour has not formally addressed the question of what should happen if the deal is unacceptable to the Commons.
In remarks that will further infuriate his shadow cabinet colleagues, Gardiner warns: “Do not underestimate the fact that any politician who tells you what’s going to happen in September/October around that final deal is lying to you. None of us know, none of us, because it is the biggest constitutional crisis that our country has faced in about 40 or 50 years and we simply don’t see a clear way through it at the moment. It’s going piece by piece, staggering.” [added emphasis]
Whether the Labour Party leadership tolerates such honesty remains to be seen…
For its part, the Irish Government is trying to focus attention elsewhere.