The Government has pledged to give the currently defunct Northern Ireland Assembly a “strong role” if the contentious border backstop proposal is ever triggered.
But DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds has branded the commitment “meaningless and cosmetic”.
In a paper published on Wednesday outlining a series of commitments specific to the region, the Government said if a wider EU/UK trade deal fails to materialise by the end of the Implementation Period in 2020, there would be a legally-binding commitment to “consult” with Stormont before deciding to either enter the backstop or ask for an extension of the Implementation Period.
The view of the Assembly, said the Government, would then be presented to Parliament before MPs took a final decision on the issue.
If the backstop does come into effect, the Government said the Stormont Assembly and Executive would then be given a strong oversight role in its operation.
If the EU proposed changing any laws that impacted the operating of the backstop, the UK would have to consent to such a measure applying to Northern Ireland and the Government has now committed to seek the agreement of the Assembly before signing off on any such change.
The Government has also offered politicians in Northern Ireland a role in influencing its approach to a number of joint UK/EU forums that will be established to oversee the Withdrawal Agreement.
It said it would agree a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with any future Stormont Executive setting out the devolved administration’s role in respect of the three main bodies – the Joint Committee, the Specialised Committee on the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Joint Consultative Working Group.
The Government paper stated: “This will apply solely to Northern Ireland-specific issues – UK-wide provisions are rightly a matter for the UK Government.
“The MoU would agree the appropriate UK delegation to those forums when Northern Ireland-specific issues are being discussed.
“It would also set out the agreed processes and forums to ensure effective dialogue and information-sharing with the Executive on the implementation of the protocol.
“This would ensure that the Northern Ireland voice was represented and heard at each level of the institutional structures that would give effect to the protocol.”
In the Northern Ireland paper, the Government also committed to ensure that Great Britain will not diverge from the EU rules that would apply in Northern Ireland if the backstop was triggered, insisting those would only account for a “small fraction” of all Single Market rules.
“By so doing we would ensure everything possible had been done to avoid any additional preventable barriers within the UK internal market,” stated the document.
The Government said that all devolved legislatures in the UK would be handed many of the powers that will be no longer governed by EU law once Brexit happens.
If a wider UK/EU trade deal is ultimately struck, the Government said the interests of Northern Ireland would be fully reflected in it.
In conclusion, the paper stated: “We are committed to ensuring that Northern Ireland’s voice is heard at all stages both in any decision to bring the backstop into effect, and in its implementation should it be needed.
“The Belfast Agreement will be protected in full, with no expansion of North-South co-operation without the cross-community consent requirements set out in that Agreement.
“We will continue to ensure protections for Northern Ireland businesses and will provide for an enhanced role for the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, when they are restored, in shaping our future relationship with the EU and in ensuring that domestic law continues to reflect the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland.”
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds has branded the Government’s commitments on Northern Ireland “meaningless and cosmetic”.
He said the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement would override any domestic law changes made by the Government.
“We reject the backstop and have previously, and consistently, indicated we will not support an internationally legally binding withdrawal agreement that contains its provisions,” he said.
“Such an international treaty supersedes and overrides any contrary domestic legal provisions.”
He added: “The Assembly would not be able to override UK international legal obligations as the backstop provisions would be in the treaty.”
Mr Dodds highlighted that the EU/UK Joint Report of December 2017 contained a commitment that the Assembly would ultimately decide if specific Northern Ireland arrangements would be required.
“Consultation cannot replace the Assembly determining these matters,” he added.
“Furthermore, it is clear that under these proposals providing a law for a mandatory process of consultation with the Assembly on whether to bring the backstop into effect would ultimately have no bearing on the decisions to be taken by Parliament.
“Were we to find the backstop being brought into effect then, in such circumstances there would be no exit mechanism from the backstop and consequently these series of measures outlined by the Government would not be sufficient to deal with the major and significant flaws of an internationally binding backstop arrangement.”
Mr Dodds added: “For our part we believe that it is unacceptable that the UK internal market, and Northern Ireland’s significant relationship as an integral part of it, would be reliant on the terms of an Act or Acts of Parliament, which could be the subject of change at any time depending on the policy views of a future United Kingdom government.
“Meanwhile, Northern Ireland would be bound by the terms of the international withdrawal treaty with no clear exit route.
“The Government is aware that we will not countenance anything which places Northern Ireland’s place within the internal market of the United Kingdom at risk and which creates significant new regulatory divergence risks within the UK.
“Our position on all these matters has not changed. We will continue to work to secure a better deal in the time ahead.”