Brexit: Backstop with a time limit is not a backstop, says Nigel Dodds

Securing a time-limit on the controversial Irish border backstop would effectively mean there is no longer a backstop, DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds has suggested.

In an interview with the News Letter, the DUP deputy leader said any changes to Theresa May’s Brexit deal must be legally binding or they “will not cut the mustard” with his party.

Nigel Dodds

Nigel Dodds

Significantly, while he reiterated his party’s stance that the backstop “has to go”, Mr Dodds also stated that placing a time-limit on the arrangement would “nullify” it and make it inoperable.

“A backstop is an all-enduring, forever trap,” the North Belfast MP said, adding: “It isn’t a backstop if it is time-limited.”

The remarks come following reports that the North Belfast MP has been involved in drawing up proposals that could yield a breakthrough over the thorny issue of the backstop.

When asked if his party would back the withdrawal agreement if they were given legal assurances the backstop would be temporary in nature, Mr Dodds said: “The bottom line is that we cannot accept anything that doesn’t have a legally binding way out of the backstop.

“The prime minister has set out in the Commons that there has to be legally binding change and we are going to hold her to that. If there isn’t legally binding change, if it is just more assurances or guarantees about the temporary nature of the backstop, that is not going to work.”

According to the Sunday Times, the hardline European Research Group (ERG) of Tory MPs have indicated they will support the PM’s Brexit deal if their demands are met, including a legally binding mechanism to escape the backstop.

• Morning View: DUP reaction to backstop will be central to fate of UK

In private talks with Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, the ERG called for a legally binding mechanism to escape the backstop, with a clear exit route and an unambiguous rewrite of the language in the government’s legal advice, the newspaper said.

The demands were drawn up in conjunction with Mr Dodds, it was reported.

Last week, DUP Brexit spokesperson Sammy Wilson appeared to indicate his party would be willing to accept a time-limited backstop.

His remarks led some commentators to suggest that the DUP was softening its stance on Brexit, with former UUP leader Lord Empey accusing the party of “slithering towards a fudge” on Brexit.

Speaking to the News Letter yesterday, Mr Dodds said his party was going to “examine very carefully and critically” whatever concessions the government manages to secure from Brussels.

“We will be guided by what the effect of it is. Does it legally change the withdrawal agreement? That is what is clear and important,” he added.

“If it doesn’t change the withdrawal agreement and the attorney general can’t change his opinion, it won’t cut the mustard as far as we are concerned.

“We have set out a series of tests which measure up to what the prime minister committed to as part of the Brady amendment. We will measure whatever is brought back against those tests.”

According to the Sunday Times, the three tests the government must meet if the prime minister is to receive the backing of the ERG and DUP include:

• A “clearly worded, legally binding, treaty-level clause which unambiguously overrides” the text of the withdrawal agreement;

• Language that “must go beyond simply re-emphasising/reinterpreting the temporary nature of the backstop” and a change to Cox’s legal advice that it would “endure indefinitely”;

• A “clear and unconditional route out of the backstop if trade talks fail”, which could mean “a time limit or a unilateral exit mechanism”.

Meanwhile, Mr Dodds dismissed allegations that his party had softened its stance on the backstop.

He also stated that a no-deal scenario was “still better than a bad deal,” adding: “As far as we are concerned the withdrawal agreement is the worst position of all.”

TUV leader Jim Allister said no unionist should be prepared to countenance the backstop “for even a single day,” adding: “It is not about the duration, it is about sovereignty and there is no room for compromise when it comes to sovereignty.

“Once you accept the principle of the backstop, you have accepted the principle that NI should be treated differently from the rest of the UK.”

Irish premier Leo Varadkar yesterday said his government and the EU are happy to offer clarifications and assurances on the withdrawal agreement, to help get the accord over the line.

The attorney general and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay are to return to Brussels today for further talks.

• Morning View: DUP reaction to backstop will be central to fate of UK