Owen Polley: Boris Johnson and DUP have put NI’s status in UK up for negotiation

Boris Johnson and the DUP leader Arlene Foster are accused of putting Northern Ireland's status in the UK up for negotiation
Boris Johnson and the DUP leader Arlene Foster are accused of putting Northern Ireland's status in the UK up for negotiation
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According to the DUP, there is nothing to see here, but Arlene Foster and Boris Johnson have abandoned the principle that Northern Ireland must leave the EU on close to the same terms as Great Britain. Worse than that, they’ve put our relationship with the rest of the UK up for negotiation.

Last October, a reporter asked the DUP leader whether she could accept differences in trade regulations between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country. Her answer was unequivocal. “That has been our one red line,” Arlene Foster said, “We cannot have either a customs border or a regulatory border down the Irish Sea because that would make us separate from the UK. That doesn’t work from a constitutional perspective and it doesn’t work from an economic perspective either.”

It was an admirably straightforward statement, with which no genuine unionist could disagree. Remarkably, one year later, the DUP accepted, in theory at least, product checks down the Irish Sea. The government’s proposals for replacing the backstop threaten to create an internal-UK border for goods arriving here from the British mainland.

Section 9 of the explanatory note that accompanied Boris Johnson’s letter to the European Commission states, “traders moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland would need to notify the relevant authorities before entering Northern Ireland in order to provide the appropriate information to undertake the appropriate checks.”

In effect, the prime minister asked Brussels to drop its demand that the province remains in the customs union, in return for an undertaking that we abide by single market rules for at least five years. He asked for half a backstop and, encouraged by Leo Varadkar, the EU is set to fling even that extraordinary surrender back in his face. For its part, the DUP describes the deal as a “serious and sensible way forward”.

To sustain this argument, the party cites the need for Stormont to consent to alignment with the single market. The explanatory note proposed that the Assembly and Executive get their say “before the end of the transition period (which is set to expire in December 2020) and every four years afterwards”.

The DUP believes this means it has a veto over a regulatory border and that Northern Ireland will default to British rules when Stormont fails to reach a consensus. The logic is that they’ve signed up to an agreement on the understanding that they can vote it down later, which is hardly a coherent or consistent position.

The explanatory note was deliberately vague about how the Assembly’s consent would be sought. It stated only that “the UK will provide an opportunity for democratic consent”. The government has already suggested that the exact method is up for negotiation. On Sunday, the Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay, told Andrew Marr that Britain “could look at” and “discuss” the mechanism for providing consent.

Before its publication, the government briefed that its backstop replacement would be a ‘final offer’ to the EU before it ploughed ahead with ‘no deal’. Yet, on the Marr Show, Barclay admitted that Boris Johnson wants “intensive negotiations” about the document. It’s clear that the prime minister regards his proposals as a basis for further haggling rather than an ultimatum. Dublin and Brussels greeted the plans with a lack of basic courtesy and respect, but they didn’t dismiss the idea that they could be adapted. Although there are now some indications from Number 10 that, because the EU refuses to ‘budge one centimetre’, the deal is likely to die and ‘it won’t be revived’, the government previously hinted that it hadn’t reached the limit of what it was prepared to give.

Even without further changes, Mr Johnson’s plan is potentially damaging to our place in the Union. If Northern Ireland were to remain under the control of the EU until 2026, while the rest of the UK forged an independent trade policy, it would be no simple matter to realign with Great Britain. The focus of our politics, economy and society would have changed. Dublin would have become our business community’s conduit to Brussels and the convulsion required to reassert British interests would be traumatic.

The government’s scheme requires traders in Great Britain to fill in extra paperwork to send goods here. Some of the most powerful objections to the backstop - that it could affect supply chains, that it may disrupt the way national retailers supply outlets in Northern Ireland and that it will dissuade small or online businesses from the mainland from selling to NI - are equally valid for Boris’s proposals.

If this was the government’s opening offer, what on earth was it prepared to accept ultimately? Its proposals destroy the principle that Northern Ireland should be treated like the rest of the country, or as near as possible, as the UK leaves the EU. They demolish an important part of the rationale for opposing the backstop in the first place. Even if they are not enacted before October 31, and even if there is a clean or ‘no deal’ Brexit, they become the government’s starting point in any future talks that might follow a general election.

We buy six times more goods from mainland Britain than we buy from the Republic of Ireland. Yet, the Conservatives and the DUP have volunteered to create trade barriers between two regions of the UK, to protect the nationalist fantasy that there is a substantial ‘all-Ireland economy’. And Dublin has the audacity to imply this concession is an unacceptable sop to unionists.

We keep hearing the argument that both sides need to compromise to reach an agreement, so the government has to concede on the backstop. Previously, Boris Johnson and the DUP seemed to adhere to the more fundamental principle that the EU has no right to drive a political and economic wedge between two parts of the UK. Effectively, they’ve now conceded that Northern Ireland’s status is up for negotiation.