Border still major impediment to final deal on Brexit, Vince Cable says

Lib Dems leader says Sinn Féin’s absence from Westminster has eased Brexit passage

The leader of the British Liberal Democrats, Vince Cable, has said the question of the Irish Border remains a huge impediment to a final conclusion on Brexit.

Sir Vince also said Sinn Féin’s policy of abstentionism in Westminster had effectively eased the passage of Brexit through parliament.

The Twickenham MP, a former business secretary, was addressing an event in Dublin on Thursday, hosted by the business representative group Ibec.

He said that despite the agreement reached between British prime minister Theresa May and EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker last week, real ambiguity remained around the Irish Border question.


“I feel that the Irish Border problem could ultimately cause a great deal of grief. There are two totally contradictory things. One is regular trade alignment, in other words, the rules of the single market apply,” he said.

“On the other hand it makes clear that Northern Ireland must remain a sovereign part of UK. [But] if the UK diverges will Northern Ireland diverge? There will be friction in the North. It is not at all clear how these will be resolved. They have found a form of words but it has not solved the problem.”

Sir Vince also said Sinn Féin’s seven votes could have been crucial to the whole outcome in the British parliament

Asked by The Irish Times about Sinn Féin's policy of abstentionism, he said: "By not doing something they are doing something".

Sir Vince said Sinn Féin’s seven votes could be critical and could affect the whole outcome of Brexit.

“I know they are stuck in their ideology. It’s unfortunate . The real misfortune is that the only voice you hear in the parliament is the DUP. There is is one other unionist politician, a very brave politician, Lady Sylvia Hermon, who voted to Remain. All the others are solidly Brexit and that is not the view of Northern Ireland in the referendum.”

Labour’s difficulties

Asked if the intervention of the DUP last Monday week had actually weakened the position of Northern Ireland, he said that, like the Tory leadership, Arlene Foster’s hand seemed to have been forced by hardliners.

“The original formulation maintained a single market regime in the island of Ireland. The DUP saw they would be disconnected. The gossip I had heard was that Arlene Foster was willing to go along with that but was overridden by hardliners.

“It sounds possible that backwoodsmen in the DUP are calling the shots, although [Brexiteers] are a minority in the North, which voted to remain.”

Sir Vince said his his party was the only UK party which was advocating remain. He said that, traditionally, Labour was a very pro-European party but that its Marxist-Leninist leadership was anti-EU even though a majority of its parliamentary party were remainers. What compounded Labour’s difficulties, he said, was that many working class Labour constituencies in the North had voted for Brexit and that had had a chilling effect on the Labour MPs who represented those places.

“[Labour leader Jeremy] Corbyn is a likeable guy and quite liberal but he is the embodiment of a hard left movement. He is very pro-Brexit. Those who believe the Labour Party can deliver us from Brexit are mistaken,” he said.

Sir Vince said hardliners were once a minority in the Conservatives but they now dominated the party. “Theresa May, who is a remainer, has to do their bidding.”

He said there were a few remainer rebels who were willing to be defiant. He welcomed the outcome of this week’s House of Commons defeat for the government, instigated by 11 Tory rebels, which would return accountability to parliament ahead of the final exit.

“This idea there has got to be some kind of accountability at the end was reinforced by the vote in parliament. It indicates there is a growing appetite for saying ‘we can’t let the government just sort it out, there has to be some checks as well’.”

‘Bizarre idea’

Sir Vince said the kind of deals that were now being floated were either a “Norway minus” or a “Canada plus”. He said the first was unrealistic because Norway’s membership of the single market also involved accommodation for migration.

“A key driver in the UK [strategy] is to control migration. The Norwegians are not allowed to do that. What is much more likely is we finish up with Canada plus, a bizarre idea. After nine years of negotiations, we have a weak agreement. It only comes with tariffs and there is nothing on services which is 80 per cent of UK economy, or no access for financial services.

“A Canada agreement would be minimal. British politicians are trying to add on plus plus plus such as the financial services industry. The French are saying ‘no’, I’m sure the Irish have similar views.”

Sir Vince said is own guess was there was a 20 per cent possibility that Brexit would not go ahesd. That would happen if it became such a complete mess that public opinion changed, or the British economy deteriorated, he said..

“[The economy] is not doing badly at the moment even though people’s living standards have been squeezed by the biggest devaluation since the war.”

And the prospects of early election? He said Ms May already had one experience of a snap election and there was no appetite among the Tories or the DUP for an early election.

Harry McGee

Harry McGee

Harry McGee is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times