Unionists must be vigilant to ensure that a crucial issue at the heart of the Brexit talks does not result in an Anglo-Irish Agreement-style “betrayal” of Northern Ireland.
That is the view of UUP MEP Jim Nicholson, who made the remarks amid deepening unionist concern over just what a planned Brexit ‘backstop’ would mean for the Province.
The so-called ‘backstop’ is essentially a fail-safe position for the Irish border which will take effect if the UK and EU cannot reach an arrangement.
The issue dates back to December 8, when the UK government and EU negotiators drew up a joint agreement setting out the terms of what such a backstop would mean.
The key part, paragraph 49, said: “In the absence of agreed solutions, the UK will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.”
On Monday a new draft of the Brexit withdrawal agreement was published.
It reaffirmed that a backstop plan, “in line” with the one set out on December 8, “should be agreed as part of the legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement, to apply unless and until another solution is found”.
This has led some unionists to fear that the door is being kept open for Northern Ireland to remain under the umbrella of the EU’s rules whilst the rest of the UK leaves.
The European Commission’s own plan for a backstop, published last month, had drawn a strong rebuke from the prime minister.
It had envisaged Northern Ireland remaining part of both the EU’s customs territory and regulatory area, leading Theresa May to declare in the Commons that this was an arrangement “no UK prime minister could ever agree to”.
Mr Nicholson, an MEP since 1989, said: “I welcome statements from the government stating its firm opposition to any deal that would diminish the constitutional integrity of the UK – but it is absolutely vital that it is held to account on this commitment.
“We do not want a repeat of Margaret Thatcher’s infamous ‘out, out, out’ – which was followed of course by betrayal a year later.”
He was referring to a speech given by Mrs Thatcher in 1984 which ruled out a succession of nationalist proposals over Northern Ireland’s sovereignty, only for her sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement the following year, giving the Republic an advisory role in the Province’s affairs.
Mr Nicholson wondered whether there is “genuine confusion” on the part of the government and EU over the backstop, and whether what has been drawn up so far is “a form of so-called constructive ambiguity that will kick the can down the road”.
He said: “At this stage it is not enough to simply fudge the issue. The people of Northern Ireland need clarity and will not accept our constitutional position being undermined at the end of these negotiations in order to push a deal over the line.”
TUV leader Jim Allister said: “By agreeing to a backstop at all the government has created the possibility of a NI/GB border.
“While the UK government says it does not agree with the EU interpretation, it has yet to spell out in detail what its interpretation actually is.”
The DUP said in a statement that it is “recognised that a backstop position is required in the event of no agreement”.
It added: “The most recent document published this week recognises once again work is still required to agree details of the backstop option.
“However, the government has restated its clear position that there can be no new internal borders inside the UK.”