Barry Gardiner apologises for saying the Irish border is being ‘played up’ for economic gain in Brexit talks

  • Labour MPs have called for Barry Gardiner to be sacked after he was recorded saying the risks of a hard Irish border were being “played up” for economic reasons.
  • The shadow trade secretary described the Irish peace process as a “shibboleth” being used for economic gain in Brexit talks during a private meeting in Brussels last month.
  • It was the same meeting in which he said Labour should be prepared to vote for a Brexit deal it doesn’t agree with, as Business Insider reported last month.
  • Gardiner has said he is “deeply sorry” about his remarks.

LONDON – Labour MP Barry Gardiner is at the centre of a fresh Brexit row over a leaked recording which captured him claiming the Irish border issue is being “played up” in negotiations for economic reasons.

Politicians, academics and groups have warned that the return to a hard border in Ireland risked a re-emergence of paramilitary violence and should be avoided at all costs in Brexit talks.

However, the shadow trade secretary told a private meeting in Brussels last month that the consequences of a hard Irish border were being exaggerated to keep the Republic closely wedded to the UK market after Brexit.

“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,” Gardiner said, according to reports from The Guardian and Labour website The Red Roar.

“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.”

Gardiner’s comments are a break from official Labour policy, which is to oppose any Brexit deal which leads to physical infrastructure on the Irish border as a result of Britain’s departure from the EU.

Listen to Gardiner describe the Irish peace process as a “shibboleth”

There was outrage among Labour MPs on Monday night in reaction to The Guardian and Red Road reports.

Owen Smith – who was sacked as Labour’s Northern Ireland spokesperson last month for contradicting party policy – used a tweet to accuse Gardiner of “joining the Tory Brexiteers” and later suggested he should also be removed from the shadow cabinet.

A Labour MP told BI: “Incredible. As if the men with the bullets and bombs give a toss about why there’s a hard border. They surely have to sack him.”

Gardiner said he was “deeply sorry” for the remarks in a statement released on Tuesday morning.

“The GoodFriday Agreement is a vital and essential part of the relationship between the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland, and has been central to the two decades of peace it has brought about,” the shadow minister said.

“Labour is completely committed to the agreement and opposed to any return of a hard border between North and South. We are committed to negotiating a new customs union between the UK and Ireland as part of a final Brexit settlement, which would play a key role in ensuring there is no hard border. “I am deeply sorry that my informal remarks in a meeting last month have led to misunderstanding on that point – in particular, that my use of the word “shibboleth” in its sense of “pass word” 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.”

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which was signed on April 10, 1998.

Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has released a statement in which he said all sides must “cherish” the peace agreement and make sure the invisible Irish border is maintained in whatever Brexit deal is negotiated.

“There must be no return to a hard border between north and south, and no return to the horrors of the troubles. All of us on both sides of the Irish Sea have a responsibility to maintain hope for the future,” Corbyn said.

Labour’s Brexit spokesperson, Sir Keir Starmer, posted a tweet reiterating the party’s position on the Irish border.

Gardiner’s latest Brexit cock-up

In the same meeting – an invite-only event hosted by German political institute Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung – Gardiner said Labour parliamentarians should be prepared to vote for a Brexit deal it doesn’t agree with, Business Insider exclusively reported last month.

“Let’s look at the consequence of there being no deal. The UK will crash out of the EU,” according to a transcript of the event obtained by BI and confirmed by attendees.

“It’s exactly what the far right have been pushing for.”

He added: “The European Parliament should consider very carefully before voting against any agreement, even if it’s not the agreement you want.”

Gardiner’s suggestion that May’s deal should be approved, even if parliamentarians disagree with it, is another break from Labour’s official policy, which is to reject any Brexit deal which doesn’t pass the six “tests” unveiled by Shadow Brexit Secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, last year.