Lord Empey: The backstop must go – but there is an alternative

It is difficult to think of another time when UK politics seemed like such a basket case.

Friday, 6th September 2019, 1:03 pm
Lord Empey, left, pictured with UUP colleagues, leader Robin Swann and MLA Steve Aiken, at the launch of the partys alternative to the backstop

The people of Northern Ireland are being totally failed by government and Parliament during one of the most uncertain times for our nation since the Second World War.

Every day we creep closer towards the October 31 deadline for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. But amongst all the scrambling and bluster, we are no closer to actually achieving a deal that could command consensus and see us leave in an orderly manner.

The fact is that the current Withdrawal Agreement – containing the anti-democratic backstop – which has failed to achieve a Parliamentary majority in any previous attempt to pass it through the Commons, remains intact.

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From the first sighting of the backstop in December 2017, the UUP has outlined our ever-growing concerns at the direction of travel.

If implemented, the backstop would see significant divergence on economic policy and practice between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. What unionist could stand over goods from GB being treated as though they are from a “third country” once they cross the Irish Sea?

We would be rule takers from the European Union with no democratic representation in Brussels. The very foundation of the Belfast Agreement is a set of democratic institutions that ensure cross-community representation and accountability. We cannot stand by idly while decisions are put beyond the reach of our people.

We have put forward a set of proposals that we believe to be fair, reasonable and balanced. We want to make a contribution to finding a constitutionally appropriate way of out of the present impasse. Our focus is on finding a solution that respects the Republic of Ireland’s place within the EU and Single Market, while preventing a border down the Irish Sea.

We have heard repeatedly from both Dublin and the European Union that they need an “insurance policy” in the event of no agreement being reached after the transition period.

The negotiations have been dominated by politics, rather than neighbours working together to find solutions that work for us.

Our paper contains a proposal for the provision of an insurance policy for the Republic and EU, respects the single market’s right to protection, and yet does no damage to the Union.

With some additional devolution to Stormont and the creation of an additional North/South body, the democratic deficit is removed.

The UK could begin by introducing a new offence which would make it illegal to intentionally use our territory to export goods to the EU that are not compliant with EU regulations and standards.

A new cross-border body could be established to raise awareness of requirements amongst producers and exporters of the requirements of the Single Market and to carry out inspections on premises and depots to ensure compliance and report to the relevant authorities.

The UK could undertake to indemnify the EU/Ireland if it is discovered that our territory is being used to export non-compliant goods into the Single Market using the land border on the island of Ireland.

Aggressive negotiating stances will not resolve this issue to the satisfaction of our people.

Given the history and geography of these islands, pragmatism will always be a key factor in reaching a solution.

With goodwill we can achieve a positive outcome.

No one wants to see a hard land border on the island of Ireland, but there must also be appreciation of our concerns around what would effectively become a hard border up the Irish Sea.

These may be issues requiring solutions around trade, but they go to the very core of our identities on these islands.

Reaching accommodation around the complex identities here was hard won in the Belfast Agreement and should not be put under threat by reckless negotiating tactics on either side.

The Irish Government may feel strongly that they did not bring this situation about.

But their negotiating stance to date has done little to improve the situation.

We should not let 1/10th of 1% of EU trade flows to poison our long term relationship.

That is the volume of trade that flows south.

The Republic’s imports from Northern Ireland account for 1.6% of Ireland’s total imports.

What we propose is an Irish solution to an Irish problem.

With understanding of each other’s concerns and some flexibility an accommodation can still be reached.

The EU has shown flexibility in the past when it pioneered the PEACE programme that has invested heavily in Northern Ireland.

We can still see a positive outcome.