Diane Dodds: NI would be handcuffed to EU with Brussels holding the keys

Vehicles arrive at Larne Port this week
Vehicles arrive at Larne Port this week

We want to see a sensible and orderly exit from the European Union which delivers on the result of the referendum for the UK and at the same time works for our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland too.

For us, leaving the European Union without agreement has never been a preferred outcome. We are not a party of no deal however, the deal before us would irreparably damage the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. 

This is a seminal moment for our nation. We respect everyone’s right to examine the prime minister’s draft deal, to interpret it as they see fit and to challenge our views where they feel it appropriate. However, our position on the proposed deal is in line with what we have said in private and in public for many weeks. This should come as no surprise to local representatives of business including agri-food.

The draft agreement would establish significant differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. In legal terms, Annex 5 to the Protocol would mean Northern Ireland remaining in EU single market rules for goods, including food standards, while Great Britain is not. Economically it would mean vastly increased checks on food and agriculture products entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain. Practically this creates new barriers for businesses, including supermarkets seeking to fill shelves across our Province. Others can choose to frame it differently but in our eyes such a solution cannot be described as anything other than a border in the Irish Sea.

While this paints a picture of immediate disruption - even when UK and EU rules are aligned - the greater unknown of this plan is how that disruption could evolve and grow if and when the rules between sides diverge. Although this deal may give certainty to trade on day one that certainty is far from guaranteed for months and years down the line. There is no legal guarantee on preventing divergence within the UK internal market during the operation of the backstop. Commitments to ‘best endeavours’ are not enough.

Keeping Northern Ireland in the EU’s state aid framework also raises the potential for differences in support and incentives provided to businesses in different parts of the UK. Hospitality Ulster have highlighted fears that the plans could halt Northern Ireland’s campaign for cutting tourism VAT and abolishing air passenger duty. It is also clear that a new Joint Committee would have the power to restrict the maximum level of future support provided to farmers in Northern Ireland.

The deal on table fails to deliver the referendum result in every part of the UK. It leaves our Province subject to the rulings of the European Court of Justice. It creates a democratic deficit whereby Northern Ireland would become subservient to EU legislation with zero representation. In real terms, Dublin legislators would have influence over the rules governing us while elected representatives in Belfast or London would have none. This violates the principle of consent. It also extends the role of the devolved institutions and North-South bodies and grants a Joint Committee significant input into local affairs. This collectively amounts to a breach the Belfast Agreement.

The wording of the draft Withdrawal Agreement also ensures that Dublin and Brussels hold an active veto on whether the backstop ceases to apply in Northern Ireland in the future. Both options - the review mechanism or extension to the transition period - fail to allow the UK to unilaterally move away from the arrangements should it wish to do so. This could leave us in an indefinite limbo and make it harder to leave the backstop than to leave the EU itself. The ability to supersede the backstop ‘in whole or in part’ also expresses a danger that Great Britain may be able to leave the backstop but Northern Ireland has to remain. We would be handcuffed to the EU with Brussels holding the keys. That’s not taking back control.

We are not alone in our resolve to oppose the risks this deal presents to the Union. Departing cabinet members hold to our view that this agreement would break up the United Kingdom. Labour has described it as ‘a de facto border in Irish Sea’.

The parliamentary debate in the coming days should not be framed as a binary choice between a bad deal or a no deal. We believe there is widespread cross-bench support for a deal with the EU - but not this deal. We will not, as some have suggested, step back from our commitments to defend the security of Union and protect the long-term economic interests of Northern Ireland. Ultimately neither can be guaranteed by this deal and for that reason the DUP cannot in good conscience support it.

l Ben Lowry, page 11