A senior DUP figure has backed former Ulster Unionist leader Reg Empey’s assertion that there is nothing in the Belfast Agreement which demands a “seamless” Irish border.
Lord Empey made the comments after Prime Minister Theresa May, in a visit to Belfast on Friday, stated that a “seamless” border is a critical element of the agreement.
In a speech at Belfast’s Waterfront Hall, the PM claimed a seamless border is “a foundation stone on which the Belfast Agreement rests, allowing for the just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities”.
But hours after Mrs May’s speech, Lord Empey – one of the key UUP negotiators of the agreement – said: “There’s nothing in the agreement that references any of that.”
And yesterday, the DUP’s Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told the News Letter: “That would be our view as well.”
The Lagan Valley MP said that while his party does not want to see a hard Irish border after Brexit, he added: “Let’s be clear, this is not specified anywhere in the Belfast Agreement.
“We are anxious to get a pragmatic outcome that benefits all of the UK and at the same time enables free trade arrangements between the UK and EU.”
Sir Jeffrey added that any attempt to “hive off” Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK by putting a customs border in the Irish Sea would be “a fundamental breach” of the 1998 agreement.
He added: “Our bottom line remains that Northern Ireland will not be separated off from the UK, which is a key principle of the Belfast Agreement.”
The PM’s comments, made at the end of her two-day visit to Northern Ireland, have profound implications for the shape of Brexit because both the EU and the UK have agreed that it must respect the agreement.
But Lord Empey said that Mrs May’s comments about the “seamless border” – which are informing her entire Brexit policy – were founded on a false premise.
Sir Reg said that the agreement explicitly recognised the border.
“The whole point is that the Irish government changed its constitution, removing its claim – which would have meant there was no border – to a situation where it recognises the border.”
He said that the agreement “actually for first time persuaded the Irish government to recognise the border”.
The former Ulster Unionist leader stressed that he was not advocating a reinstatement of a hard border, saying that to “erect and put in a physical border would undoubtedly inflame people’s sensitivities”.
He said: “There is no doubt that the whole question of identity is important and we understand that – that’s the rationale behind cross-border bodies.
“I would fully understand and accept that the Irish national identity is best recognised by the situation we currently have.”
However, he stressed that there was nothing in the agreement which specifically precluded a hardening of the border.
He highlighted that the Irish government recognised the border by regularly stopping people crossing the border for either immigration purposes or in an attempt to detect criminality.