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Labour MP Conor McGinn says 'sea border' around Ireland after Brexit is "logical"

As Labour MP Conor McGinn makes a return visit to his native south Armagh he tells Political Correspondent John Manley why he wants a 'sea border' and how the Tories could be endangering the peace process...

Labour MP for St Helens North Conor McGinn back home in Camlough. Picture by Matt Bohill

"As different as night and day," says Conor McGinn when asked if the people of his native Camlough view the EU differently from their counterparts in his St Helens North constituency.

Back home for a long weekend to see his beloved Armagh beaten in the All-Ireland quarter final, he acknowledges the two places have contrasting histories but argues they share many similar values – "there's a strong ethos of family; community; sport's hugely important, as is the value of work".

It’s just over two years since the 33-year-old son of former Newry Sinn Féin councillor Pat McGinn became a Member of Parliament. His constituency in the post-industrial north west of England, roughly mid-way between Liverpool and Manchester, is traditionally one of Labour’s safest seats.

In May’s Westminster election, Mr McGinn was returned with an increased majority of more than 18,000 as Labour enjoyed a surprise surge at the polls.

While once at odds with Jeremy Corbyn, his friend of 15 years, he now believes the Labour leader would make a good prime minister.

But it's Corbyn's forerunner Tony Blair and the Good Friday Agreement Mr McGinn thanks for the fact that someone from a Irish republican background can represent a seat 10 miles from Warrington, where in 1993 the IRA murdered three-year-old Jonathan Ball and 12-year-old Tim Parry.

Although only nine year's-old at the time due to his background he is still on occasion asked to condemn the atrocity, which he does unequivocally and unapologetically.

Other gestures he's made as an MP – laying wreaths at the cenotaph in his constituency and taking oath to queen Elizabeth – may not be well received in south Armagh but he is unrepentant.

He's made other compromises for his constituency which, despite his best efforts, voted convincingly to leave the EU in last year's referendum.

The St Helens North MP voted to trigger Article 50 and accepts that the UK is severing ties with Brussels. Nevertheless, he believes there are "no positive outcomes" from Brexit.

However, he is forthright when addressing the negative implications of Brexit for Ireland and its potential to harden the border, which lies little over two miles from his parents' home.

He advocates special status for the north and, recalling how difficult crossing the border was during the Troubles, believes the frontier should remain open.

Labour MP for St Helens North, Conor McGinn in his hometown Camlough, South Armagh. Picture Matt Bohill.

"I don’t care what they call it – frictionless, soft, seamless, technology-driven – just as long as there’s no change to the current arrangement, whereby people, goods, services and capital can move freely across it," he says.

Mr McGinn understands that Dublin's apparent call for a 'sea border' around Ireland has irked unionists, yet he feels such an outcome appears "logical" and the right solution if the UK leaves the customs union and the single market.

He argues that limiting free movement across the border would impact on tens of thousands of people's lives, while there are already security checks on flights between Ireland and Britain.

"As part of their daily lives people have to cross the border – for school, work or whatever," he says.

"There are far fewer people traversing the Irish Sea every day, so if it means we have to check customs, security, whatever else – which we sort of do already between the two islands – then that seems to me like an eminently sensible thing to do."

He insists his stance isn't ideological but practical: "I didn’t vote for Brexit – the people who campaigned for Brexit here should’ve thought about the consequences of what they were doing."

Mr McGinn welcomes the increasingly vocal approach of the Leo Varadkar's government and refutes his party colleague Kate Hoey's assertion that the taoiseach cannot speak for Northern Ireland.

He does, however, insist that the Vauxhall MP is an "important voice" in Labour.

"The Irish government, the Irish people and people who voted remain in Northern Ireland are entitled to be annoyed about Brexit and entitled to be annoyed with the British government for pursuing Brexit, and when there’s no functioning executive Dublin is entitled to speak for its citizens," he says.

On the Tory-DUP pact, Mr McGinn is concerned that his cousins in Bessbrook will get extra cash for public services but not his constituents in St Helens.

He also has misgivings about its impact on the peace process, believing the confidence and supply deal confirms that the Tories are "incapable of being impartial arbiters"

He is critical of the "bellicose statements" from Secretary of State James Brokenshire, his predecessor Theresa Villiers and Prime Minister Theresa May "about the union and valuing the union".

"Whereas the Good Friday Agreement was built on the no selfish economic or strategic interest argument that Peter Brooke made, you could argue that their interest now is entirely selfish and not very strategic," he says.

He stands by his criticism of James Brokenshire for not standing for Amhrán na bhFiann when attending a GAA match last year and is scathing regarding the British government's approach to legacy matters, especially where the armed forces are concerned.

The Labour MP accuses the British of "vilifying" Director of Public Prosecution Barra McGrory.

He notes how the Crown Prosecution Service in England recommended charges against retired police officers over the Hillsborough disaster and argues that there would be an outcry if they were given an amnesty.

"Yet they’re proposing that soldiers and police officers who engaged in unlawful killings here should not be charged – it just beggars belief that they would be so insensitive about it," he says.

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