Lord Empey: The DUP seem to be slithering towards a fudge on the Irish border backstop

During the EU Referendum campaign the DUP and others told us that they would ensure that we would leave the European Union, remove the writ of the European Court of Justice, be free from the regulatory powers of Brussels and be able to make Trade deals with other countries to boost our economy.

Friday, 1st March 2019, 11:48 am
Updated Friday, 1st March 2019, 2:40 pm
Brussels, not Westminster, will decide regulations in Northern Ireland under the Withdrawal Agreement, which creates a border between NI and GB. "Even after the EU published its interpretation of the backstop in March 2018, the DUP did nothing," writes Lord Empey

There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeking to leave the EU — it’s a legitimate policy to follow — but the gap between what people were promised and what will be delivered has widened considerably, to put it mildly.

The backstop, which was first floated in December 2017 drives a coach and horses through the Belfast Agreement and could trap the UK in a permanent customs union with the EU.

It creates a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. We would have to treat goods from England as if they came from a third country! How far away from the unity of the United Kingdom can we get?

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Lord Empey is a former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

The U turns of this past week by both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, illustrate how fragile, chaotic and dysfunctional things are at Westminster.

My deal or no deal has become my deal or delay! What a way to run a country!

Foreign observers can’t understand what the UK is doing and people on the ground at home are angry and anxious in equal measure.

The best leavers can hope for now is the prime minister’s deal with some time limiting to the backstop, assuming it can be made legally binding.

How our negotiators ever agreed to it in the first place is a mystery, but we are where we are.

The comments from Gregory Campbell in the News Letter on Wednesday February 20 about what the DUP would now accept on Brexit, confirms my view that the DUP are slithering towards a fudge on the legal text to get themselves off the hook upon which they have impaled themselves and the whole of Northern Ireland.

But the PM’s Withdrawal Agreement means that we will be taking regulations from Brussels during a transition period which could last for years without any representation in Brussels to put our point of view forward.

We will continue to have to live with the judgements of the European Court of Justice and be unable to implement tariff free independent trade deals with countries outside the EU.

The remaining EU 27 will individually have a veto over a future trade deal between the UK and the EU.

The French will haggle about fishing, the Spanish over Gibraltar and dear knows what Dublin will be demanding!

Furthermore, in the forthcoming European Parliamentary elections, parties in the Republic will be fielding candidates, some of whom will be designated by Dublin to ‘represent’ Northern Ireland interests in the European Parliament after we have left the EU.

If all this wasn’t bad enough, the way in which Brexit has been handled — especially by the DUP — has radicalised Irish nationalism, and with help from Peter Robinson, driven the idea of a border poll up near the top of the political agenda.

Meanwhile, our businesses and farmers are all facing an uncertain few months, are unable to invest and are being forced to spend money on contingency plans that may never be required.

Northern Ireland is being blamed by some now for the political disruption, something that we will pay for in the long run.

The prospect of another vote fills me with horror at the further divisions this would inevitably produce.

The Ulster Unionist Party fully respects the result of the referendum, but we also believe that Northern Ireland, of all places in the UK, needs a deal to be done with the EU.

While I can imagine the DUP hoping that they can somehow manage to wash their hands of any fudge that may be forced upon Parliament in a few weeks, they cannot avoid responsibility for failing to prevent the backstop during the last year when they could have done so.

They didn’t realise its significance. Arlene Foster claimed at the time:

“Northern Ireland will not be separated constitutionally, politically, economically or regulatory from the rest of the United Kingdom and the joint UK-EU report at the conclusion of phase one makes clear that in all circumstances the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the UK internal market.”

Claims that Northern Ireland would not be separated on regulatory matters from rest of the UK have proved to be bogus and under the backstop proposals we will indeed be separated from the rest of the UK.

Even after the EU published its interpretation of the backstop in March 2018, still the DUP did nothing.

They were asleep at the wheel and no amount of spin and backtracking now can change that.

l Lord Empey is a former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party