As you know, I have consistently voted to leave the EU with a deal in preference to leaving with no deal or to refusing to leave at all in clear contravention not just of the 2016 Referendum result but also of the promises I and most politicians made to enact that result. The Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by the previous Prime Minister was not perfect. Its most obvious defect was the so-called Northern Irish ‘Backstop’, which would have kept Northern Ireland effectively inside the EU single market in the event that a future partnership agreement was not negotiated with the EU before the end of 2020 (the end of the transition period agreed as part of the Withdrawal Agreement). The concern that the ‘Backstop’ position could not, if it came into effect, be ended without the consent of the EU was technically valid, but in my view it was most unlikely that the EU would choose to ‘trap’ the UK in the backstop largely because it would not be in the economic interests of the Republic of Ireland to do so. As a result I considered it a defect worth accepting in what was otherwise a perfectly acceptable deal, and I voted for that Withdrawal Agreement 3 times. Had others done the same we would have left the EU in March and be well into our discussion with the EU about that future partnership. As it is, that Withdrawal Agreement did not meet with Parliament’s approval and the reason given by many for refusing to support it was the Northern Ireland ‘Backstop’.
It was logical therefore for the new Prime Minister to seek to change the ‘backstop’ arrangements and the new version of the Withdrawal Agreement does so. It now provides for a different arrangement, which is also imperfect, as it involves additional procedures and checks on trade. Both the backstop and these new arrangements are of course a consequence of seeking both to leave the EU and to preserve the delicate political and economic arrangements on the island of Ireland. I believe it is vital to do both. The revised Withdrawal Agreement deals with the risk of being ‘trapped’ by providing for an opportunity, every 4 years, for a majority of Northern Ireland Assembly members to vote to leave the proposed arrangements if they choose to do so.
As I say, I do not believe this Withdrawal Agreement is perfect, any more than I believed the last one was. But in reality, no negotiated settlement will be perfect for either side. As legislators we have to find the best way through the situation we find ourselves in, not hold out for a perfect solution that does not exist, or simply wish that the situation were different. I repeat we promised as politicians to deliver the Referendum outcome and we must now do so in the best way available. If the last Withdrawal Agreement could not secure the Parliamentary consent it needed, then it had to be changed. The new version remains far preferable in my view to either of the realistic alternatives – no deal or no Brexit at all. Consequently, I have voted for this new Withdrawal Agreement, much of which is the same as the Agreement I have previously supported.
I believe most people in this country want to move on. I accept that finalising a Withdrawal Agreement does not end the Brexit process, but we cannot move to the next stage without doing so, so refusing to finalise the Withdrawal Agreement only perpetuates a corrosive debate which has fractured our society and paralysed our politics, and is too often a very thinly-disguised means of seeking to frustrate Brexit altogether.