LONDON (Reuters) - British Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn attacked the government’s Brexit plans on Thursday, saying its future customs proposals would undermine an open border on the island of Ireland that “is a symbol of peace”.
In a speech at Northern Ireland’s Queen’s University, he also called for all parties to revive the spirit of the Good Friday peace agreement to deliver economic justice and prosperity in Northern Ireland.
In his first major visit to the British province since becoming leader in 2015, he said Labour would not support any Brexit deal that includes a return to a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which some fear could inflame violence.
Corbyn said Labour’s proposal for a new, comprehensive UK-EU customs union, with a British say on future trade deals and arrangements, coupled with a new, strong relationship with the EU single market would prevent communities being divided.
“The British government is making a mess of these negotiations. Week after week it becomes clearer and clearer that they are too divided to make the right choices and too weak to get a good Brexit deal,” he said.
“The Conservative government talks about how technology could avoid a hard border under their plans, and how new systems can provide checks and collect tariffs. But even if that were true, it misses the point,” he said, adding that an open border showed two communities living together after years of conflict.
“Driven by the free-market fantasists within their ranks, the reckless Conservative approach to Brexit is a very real threat to jobs and living standards here in Northern Ireland, and risks undermining and destabilising the cooperation and relative harmony of recent years,” Corbyn added.
Prime Minister Theresa May has said Britain will leave the EU customs union after Brexit although the government has agreed to propose to the bloc a backstop plan that would apply its external tariffs beyond December 2020.
EU officials warn time is running out to seal a Brexit deal this year because there has been not enough progress in the negotiations in recent months, most importantly on how to avoid the hard border or physical controls on the border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.
Corbyn evoked the spirit of the 1998 agreement that largely ended 30 years of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland in which over 3,000 people died.
Part of the 1998 agreement was the establishment of a power-sharing devolved government at Stormont which collapsed in January 2017.
Corbyn appealed for renewed efforts to revive it.
“We must step up to find a creative solution, in the spirit of the Good Friday agreement, that avoids a return to direct Westminster rule and lays the ground for further progress for all communities,” he said.
Reporting by Stephen Addison and Elizabeth Piper; editing by Alistair Smout