DUP: PM must activate emergency Brexit get-out clause to protect Union

A senior DUP MP has declared that the Irish Sea border has created a situation so dire that the prime minister must now activate a clause in the Brexit deal, allowing him to take what are essentially emergency steps to “safeguard” the Union.

Thursday, 14th January 2021, 10:09 am
Updated Thursday, 14th January 2021, 10:19 am
Depleted shelves in Sainsbury's at the Forestside shopping centre in Belfast

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson made the comments in Parliament as he set out a litany of major headaches faced by consumers and businesspeople alike, thanks to the new Brexit trading arrangement in place from January 1 onwards.

Boris Johnson was dismissive of Sir Jeffrey’s plea however, claiming that “goods are flowing effectively” between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

It all came amid fierce exchanges on the floor of Parliament, with Ian Paisley pointing across the chamber and asking: “What did we do to members on those benches over there to be screwed over by this protocol? Ask your hearts – every single one.”

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Ever since the UK formally ditched EU rules two weeks ago, the News Letter has been reporting on missed shipments, delayed lorries, extra paperwork for firms, and the withdrawal of certain goods and services for Northern Irish consumers.

Parliament was given a specific example of a Northern Irish woman who is moving home from Essex to Co Antrim, and who drove all the way to Cairnryan port only to be refused onto the sailing due to Brexit confusion.

Now the DUP is hanging its hopes on a section of the Northern Ireland Protocol which acts as a kind of ‘get-out clause’.

Article 16 allows for unspecified special measures to be taken in the event that the NI economy faces “serious” disruption.

The protocol is basically the key document governing Brexit for Northern Ireland.

It gave a “guarantee of avoiding a hard border” on land in Ireland and a “firm commitment to no customs and regulatory checks”.

But when it came to protecting the UK internal market, the language in the protocol was much more watery.

Instead of a “firm commitment” or “guarantee”, it said only that signatories’ would “aim” to avoid “controls at the ports and airports of Northern Ireland, to the extent possible”.

However, the protocol also contains a clause named Article 16.

This states: “If the application of this protocol leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade, the Union or the UK may unilaterally take appropriate safeguard measures.

“Such safeguard measures shall be restricted with regard to their scope and duration to what is strictly necessary in order to remedy the situation.

“Priority shall be given to such measures as will least disturb the functioning of this protocol.”

In other words, the UK has some latitude to basically rejig the trading relationship between NI and GB if “economic” or “societal” problems arise.

Mr Johnson said he is ready to use this power, but indicated that there is no need to at present.

Sir Jeffrey had told the House: “The prime minister promised us that Northern Ireland will continue to have unfettered access to the UK internal market.

“And yet in my constitutency consumers are facing empty supermarket shelves, they can’t get parcels delivered from Great Britain, small businesses can’t bring spare parts and raw materials into NI from GB, steel importers are facing tariffs, and we’ve many other problems – all caused by the NI Protocol.

“So what I and the people of NI need to know from the prime minister, as leader of the UK, is what his govenrment is going to do to address this; if he will consider invoking Article 16 of the NI Protocol to resolve these issues.”

Mr Johnson responded: “At the moment, goods are flowing effectively and in normal volumes between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

“So far no lorries have been turned back. Yes, of course there are teething problems.

“What I can say – what I can confirm to him – is that if there are problems that we believe are disproportionate, that we will have no hesitation in invoking Article 16.”

The protocol began being developed in autumn 2019, and UUP veteran Lord Empey has repeatedly criticised the DUP for having allowed it to come into being in the first place (Arlene Foster initially said the idea looked like “a sensible, stable way forward”, though she went on to strongly reject it).

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Alistair Bushe