Gregory Campbell’s remarks to this newspaper on the Irish backstop, which we report today, are partly reassuring, but partly not.
The East Londonderry DUP has said that the Withdrawal Agreement agreement puts Northern Ireland at a trading disadvantage to the rest of the UK and that has to change. It certainly introduces a barrier in the Irish Sea, thus disrupting internal UK trade.
Mr Campbell then says: “We are not getting into the pedantics of whether that will be a codicil, an addition, or a deletion. Whatever the change is, we will judge it against the fundamental position of whether it removes the disadvantage that exists for NI under the Withdrawal Agreement.”
While it is welcome that Mr Campbell is saying that a change to the backstop must “override” the current withdrawal text and that the attorney general should be consulted to ensure this is so, he then says: “Does it have legal standing and does it put us on the same path as the rest of the UK?”
But this last question can be answered easily. If the Withdrawal Agreement is not reopened, Northern Ireland is not on the same path as the rest of the UK.
The deal has explicitly different arrangements for the Province to, in effect, stay in the EU customs union and single market. A codicil might nullify that, but most legal experts seem to think it would not. In any event, the weakness of the British government to date raises the question of who in London would ever implement exit routes from the backstop, or argue that trade deals must apply to all UK even if they involve some regulatory and customs change at the Irish border.
It might well be that the DUP has been given explicit legal assurances from the government on this point.
The experienced Westminster journalist Tom Newton Dunn was tweeting yesterday that a new backstop deal with the EU might be imminent. We trust that a Northern Ireland unionist party, rather than a small number of English Conservative MPs, are most emphatic in rejecting the backstop.