Echoes of the Famine: British politician suggests threatening Ireland with food shortages over Brexit

Priti Patel threatens Ireland with food shortages

Secret papers drawn up by the British government suggest that Ireland could suffer food shortages if Britain has to leave the European Union without securing a good trade deal.

The documents were leaked to the Times newspaper, which says they were seized upon by some government ministers as a way of putting pressure on Ireland to be more supportive in the Brexit negotiations.

Former government minister Priti Patel, pictured above, said: “This paper appears to show the government were well aware Ireland will face significant issues in a no-deal scenario. Why hasn’t this point been pressed home during the negotiations? There is still time to go back to Brussels and get a better deal.”

The issue arose because of concerns over the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. After Brexit, it will also become the border between the UK and the EU and so will require customs checks.

Checks were a major point of conflict during the Troubles in Northern Ireland and so Ireland, the European Union and the UK are all determined that there should be no return to a hard border. The problem is how to respect that decision while maintaining customs control.

No one has yet been able to solve the problem so to avoid potential conflict, the UK has agreed to the so-call backstop solution. This would see Northern Ireland effectively remaining in the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union indefinitely if no better solution can be found in the future. Under the current deal negotiated by British Prime Minister Theresa May, Britain would not be able to pull out of the backstop without the agreement of the EU.

This is fiercely opposed by the more hardline Brexiteers and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland.

They all want the backstop to be dropped, or at least amended so that Britain can pull out of it whenever it wants.

Some of these ministers, like Ms Patel, see the disruption caused to Ireland’s food supplies as a way of bringing pressure to bear on the Irish government to drop their insistence on maintaining the backstop.

The leaked papers point out that 80% of Irish road freight imports, including perishable foodstuffs, pass through the UK. If that freight was delayed at customs checks, it would cause disruption to Ireland’s supply of imported food.

The leaked paper points out that “political and social damage would likely follow”.

The suggestion by people like Priti Patel say that this could be used to put pressure on Ireland has been widely condemned.

Lisa Nandy, a Labour MP, told the Times: “Threatening Ireland in this way is as morally reprehensible as it is futile. Britain should be showing itself to be a dependable neighbour and friend in the future, and it is frightening that Brexiteers are even contemplating a move which could see stopping trade, including food supplies, being weaponised in this way, particularly given the uncomfortable historical echoes.”

A spokesman for Irish government said they were unmoved by the suggestion and would not be changing their stance.

Another Irish government official said that they had been planning for a hard Brexit and reducing their reliance on UK road freight for over a year. “We are prepared if there is a no-deal scenario next March. We also have a commitment from the European Commission to support Ireland against the fallout from a hard Brexit.”

The threatening attitude was widely condemned on social media. Leading British anti-Brexit campaigner Lord Adonis said it was reprehensible to threaten Ireland in this way. “Priti Patel has torpedoed any remote possibility that Ireland might have been amenable to negotiating further on the backstop to save Mrs May. Especially after Jacob (Rees Mogg MP) said that instead of the backstop Ireland should leave the EU too & do what Britain tells it.

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His tweet was echoed by a host of people outraged at Patel’s comments.

Did you know?

Brian Boru is known as the last High King of Ireland and is even credited with seeing off the Vikings who had terrorised the Irish for over 200 years. Find out more.