Speech by Brendan Howlin TD at ‘Ulster Fry’ event, British Labour Party Conference
26 September 2017
Party Leader and Spokesperson on Foreign Affairs and Northern Ireland
I want to thank the organisers for the invitation to be here with you this morning.
A year ago, when I attended this Labour Conference, I was, like many Irish people, still reeling from the decision of the British people.
12 months on, with the clock now ticking rapidly, I’m not sure I feel all that different.
As a nation that fought for our sovereignty both in parliament and by way of physical force, Irish peopleunderstand acts of national sovereignty.
It is of course within the UK’s right to leave the European Union.
But sovereignty is a fluid concept in the modern world.
It is governed by treaties, by agreements.
The full cost of Brexit on the lives of ordinary people, including many who vote Labour but also voted to leave, is only becoming clear.
Notwithstanding that, I believe it will only get worse.
This is an issue that is not confined to the UK.
It has consequences, serious consequences for those who did not, who could not, vote.
And Ireland is to the fore in that regard.
I can understand the nuanced attitude Labour has taken on the issue since the vote.
But as friends, and as members of an international movement, it is important that we explain that acts have consequences.
And that those who do not commit the act, should not bear the responsibility for the consequences of that act.
From an Irish perspective, there was and is considerable anger at the UK decision.
Governments and diplomats are often slow to articulate such anger.
But it is there on the ground.
And we are beginning to see it come out through official statements.
There is anger that our needs and concerns didn’t figure in the debate at all.
Even in Boris Johnson’s scribblings last week, we didn’t merit as much as a mention.
There is anger at the possibility of real issues on our islandbeing used as pawns in a negotiating game.
Anger that fifty years of working diligently towards better relationships have been so easily dismissed.
Anger that a dynamic has been created that will haveconsequences we cannot yet even foresee.
Bluntly, nobody knows how this is going to play out on the island of Ireland.
What we do know is that there are those, alive now and born into the future, who will use this opportunity to disrupt the hard work of recent years.
If we are not moving forward, then we are going backward.
This is something of a truism in politics, but even moreso in relation to the Irish peace process.
And that is an area that is certainly not moving forward.
The current impasse doesn’t have its origins in Brexit, but it impacts here too.
Nationalists view their European citizenship as a core element of their identity.
Being mutually European has dimmed the starkness of the Irish/British conflict, north and south.
But Brexit has driven the two sides further and further apart.
The DUP and Sinn Fein aren’t even capable of acting in their voters interests as the Scottish and Welsh Governments have done.
There is no Northern Executive;
No shared sense of what type of Brexit might best serve the communities in the north of Ireland.
Instead, mutual recrimination is the order of the day.
Talking at each other, but not listening.
The fundamental distrust that is manifesting so clearly now was not caused by Brexit.
But it is certainly making a bad situation worse.
The impact of Brexit is, of course, not limited to the peace process.
We’ve recovered from a difficult recession in Ireland;
A far deeper recession than that experienced here.
Now, just as we get back on our feet, we find this immense uncertainty foisted upon us from outside.
Done to us by a nation that, whatever our troubled past, we share more in common with than any other.
That is deeply disheartening.
I have to be clear on one point.
There is no solution to the Irish dimension of this problem outside the single market and the customs union.
Transitional arrangements amount to no more than kicking the can down the road.
On most issues, I will differ sharply from the politics of our Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar.
But he speaks for all of Ireland when he states we are not interested in technical solutions.
We will work together – parties on all sides of Irish politics – to seek to vindicate our national interest in these discussions whenever possible.
We could hardly do otherwise.
With a Party Leader who has shown a lifelong interest in Irish affairs, I hope the Labour Party will stand with us.
I said a year ago, and I will repeat again - I support a second referendum on the final Brexit settlement.
I followed the campaign closely last year.
In Liverpool, I campaigned with Conor McGinn and others against it.
I listened carefully to the lies told by the Brextiteers.
Lies they continue to tell.
During the Brexit debate, no mandate to leave the single market was sought.
No explanation of the disastrous consequeces of leaving the customs union were set out.
The British people were sold a fable.
A bed time story.
No more, and no less.
And the results are already in.
Anaemic growth, wage killing inflation, a capital flight underway.
And it’s going to get worse.
So in my view, the Brexit tests set out by Keir Starmer have already been met.
Britain is already worse off.
Her reputation is diminished.
And she has set out a course for internal instability that will manifest itself in time.
The Labour Party has one key obligation.
To hold this Tory Government to account, and in the fullness of time to bring it down and replace it.
When holding the Tory Government to account on Brexit, if I may speak frankly, it should have the assistance of Sinn Fein in doing so.
Their seats, lying unoccupied, now act as Tory seats in effect.
I understand the historical reasons for absenteeism.
In 1918 it made sense.
Westminister had failed Ireland.
Even the Irish parliamentary party were extra parliamentary.
But right now, abstention hurts Ireland’s interests;
And it hurts progressive interests.
I know it would be difficult for Sinn Féin to change their stance on abstention.
But if they can find a way to do so, I will be the first to applaud them.
I speak today to you as a passionate European, but not an uncritical one.
I served in a Government that was forced by European institutions to endure a bailout.
So, I know the limitations of Europe more than most.
Europe’s response to the fiscal crisis, driven by conservative governments in France and Germany, prolonged our crisis.
Our central bank intervened much later than others, to support economic activity rather than bondholders.
And a UK Labour Government voice was very much missed in these years.
In the UK, it is the Tories who have prolonged austerity.
It is the Tories who used it to fashion Tory outcomes.
In my view, the fight of Labour in Britain is not with Europe.
It is with those who wish to engineer conservative outcomes in the UK.
That we will lose forever, the voice of the British Labour Party from the forum in which Europeans do their business,is nothing short of a tragedy.
And that, above all else, is the central message I want to convey while here in Brighton.
I know that the politics of the Brexit argument were challenging in Labour constituencies.
I know that taking on a powerful, and anti-European media is brave and difficult.
And I know that Labour has been working to nuance your policy position of late.
But I also know that the result was influenced by lies and deceit.
I know that Ireland was scarcely mentioned, and certainly not considered during the debate.
And I know that pressing ahead will have devastating consequences – on the most vulnerable communities here in the UK, and also on my island.
Knowing all of these things, I can only continue to appeal to Labour to look at how you can put a stop to Brexit.
I will do anything I can to help you on that journey.