Sammy Wilson has accused the head of Northern Ireland’s civil service of employing “scare tactics” after he warned of the “grave consequences” of a no-deal Brexit.
In a letter to the Province’s political parties, David Sterling said a no-deal scenario could cause a sharp rise in unemployment in NI, adding that there could be “a profound and long-lasting impact on society”.
But in evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in Westminster this morning, DUP Brexit spokesperson Mr Wilson dismissed Mr Sterling’s remarks and claimed they were politically motivated.
“I don’t care if he is the head of the civil service or whether he is Santa Claus, it really doesn’t matter. The fact of the matter is that he has got it wrong,” he told MPs.
Laying out his party’s well-rehersed objections to Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, the East Antrim MP said the draft treaty had caused “huge concern” among the unionist community.
Reiterating the DUP’s demand for legally binding changes to the deal, Mr Wilson said any such amendments must be made “at treaty level”.
He added: “It would have to be changes at treaty level as the treaty itself is legally binding.”
Mr Wilson was also asked by North Down MP Lady Sylvia Hermon about his comments to the BBC last week, in which he appeared to indicate that his party would be willing to back the withdrawal agreement if the backstop was time-limited.
He replied: “The point I was making is that regardless of the mechanism, it is the outcome is important. That no longer would the EU be able to dictate to the UK the arrangements that would persist after we decide to leave and the way of doing that was to have an end date for the backstop.
“The EU and Irish Government have said that once you do that you have removed the backstop. If they didn’t want to have the withdrawal agreement totally destroyed, you could remove the backstop by imposing a time limit on it. That has the same outcome, there is no backstop.”
Mr Wilson’s comments echo those made to the News Letter on Monday by DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds, when he said a backstop with a time limit is effectively no longer a backstop.
In his evidence this morning, Mr Wilson also ruled out his party’s support for an arbitration mechanism to address the backstop, stating: “That would leave us in exactly the same position as the currently withdrawal agreement does, where someone else decides if UK can break out of the backstop. Whether we decide to change or alter the arrangements we have with the EU should be the decision of this parliament and this government, not some independent panel of judges.”
Meanwhile, Mr Wilson also launched a broadside at the Irish Government, after two NI fishing boats were seized last week by an Irish Navy warship.
He added: “This is the irony, that we have the Irish Government saying they don’t want to see a hard border, yet they have threatened a hard border five miles up in the air when they said they were going to stop planes flying across the Republic, now they are imposing a hard border in the Irish Sea, where they seized boats from NI.
“On one hand they want access to NI waters for their boats, but are quite happy to send gunboats to seize NI boats which want to reciprocate and fish in their waters.”
He also spoke about the divergence between the DUP’s stance on the withdrawal agreement and that of business and farming leaders, who have come out in support of the deal.
He stated: “I find it odd that the UFU (Ulster Farmers’ Union) and businesses groups support the deal. If UFU had read the agreement, they would find that state aid rules applying to NI would mean that the EU could cap that support in accordance with what they saw as the appropriate policy.
“As far as businesses are concerned, I find it difficult to understand why any of them, especially the major businesses who export all round the world, would wish to be excluded from UK trade deals in the future.
“We would not be able to participate in trade deals the UK would enter into with other parts of the world and would not have access to those markets.”
His party colleague, East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell asked Mr Wilson if business and farming groups had only supported the deal on the basis that they believed the only other alternative was a no-deal scenario.
Responding, Mr Wilson said: “I am not sure the leadership of those organisations reflects what their members would say on many occasions. I would argue that a no deal would be better than this deal.”
Labour MP Kate Hoey asked Mr Wilson if there was any truth to suggestions that business and farming leaders in NI had seen the withdrawal agreement before MPs, in an attempt by the Government to secure their support.
He replied: “They were maybe given a briefing of what was in the agreement, designed to play down the bad parts of it and emphasise the parts the government though would be attractive to them.”
Explaining his objections to the backstop, Mr Wilson told MPs: “To leave NI isolated in the was it does is very damaging to the union. We would be subject to rules made in Brussels for a wide range of activities in NI without any opportunity to have an input into them, without the UK government having an input, and would find ourselves increasingly removed from laws which are made at Westminster, superseded by laws made at Brussels. We would in effect become an annex of Brussels.
“In the future we would have to treat the rest of UK, our major trading partner, as a third country when it came to trade.
“It would also put a border down the Irish sea and place immense and costly administrative burdens on businesses in NI either bringing goods from GB or good moving to GB.”
Mr Wilson also claimed the treaty would have an impact on the Belfast Agreement, stating: “It doesn’t actually say anything about the border, but the Belfast Agreement does have a lot to say about the status of NI as part of the UK. It cant be changed except for the consent of people of NI, and the withdrawal agreement certainly changes the constitutional status of NI without the consent of the people.”
MLAs including Jim Allister, Gerry Carroll and Clare Bailey will also give evidence to the committee today on the implications of the withdrawal agreement for NI.