A decision by Theresa May to blame Northern Ireland for the delay in Brexit has dismayed the DUP, pushing them further away from the Prime Minister at the point when she needs them most.
A change of stance by the weakened Prime Minister today saw her tell MPs that the absence of devolution in Northern Ireland is part of the reason for suddenly asking for a last-minute delay.
In a demonstration of the lack of trust between No 10 and the party which keeps Mrs May in office, a bewildered-looking Nigel Dodds said in the Commons that was “an entirely new argument that we’re hearing for the first time” as a justification for delaying Brexit.
The DUP’s Westminster leader expressed open dismay at Mrs May’s argument because she has known for two years that there is no devolution in Northern Ireland.
DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson later told Sky News that his party was “sick and tired of being used as a kind of excuse” for not delivering Brexit.
Former Secretary of State and arch-Brexiteer Owen Paterson said it was “a bit surprising” to hear Mrs May claim the Northern Ireland was unable to prepare properly because of the absence of devolved government. He asked her to clarify which areas of devolved government present a problem and when will they be resolved.
Choosing her words carefully, Mrs May said that the Northern Ireland Civil Service – who have been running Stormont without democratic oversight for two years – “do not have the powers to take the necessary decisions that would be needed in a circumstance in which the UK left the EU with no deal.
“Now, it is possible to address those issues. But that had not been done by the 29th of March, [sic] the question about the impact on Northern Ireland and where there was no devolved government was an important one and I believe that it’s absolutely right that the government took the view, the government took the view that it was not appropriate, not appropriate to allow that no-deal to go ahead at a time when the powers were not in place to proper exercise of the decision-making necessary in a no-deal situation.”
Mrs May’s comments came after she decided to pull a third vote on her deal to leave the EU. The Prime Minister did so after a midday phone call with DUP leader Arlene Foster which made clear that the DUP would not be changing its opposition to the deal.
Mr Dodds put it to Mrs May that she had known “for some considerable time” that 29 March was Brexit day. He asked pointedly: “So why haven’t appropriate preparations been made? Why do we need another two weeks? What’s going to happen in another two weeks that couldn’t have happened up to now? I mean, this is a fundamental lack of preparation and the government is entirely responsible for that if that’s the case.”
He said it was “an entirely new argument that we’re hearing for the first time, as to why we need the extension”.
Mrs May insisted that the issue had been raised by Michael Gove in a recent debate about no-deal, although his comments related to the possibility of direct rule in Northern Ireland to go alongside a no-deal situation.
Sammy Wilson said that until now everyone had been told by the government that it was the possibility of a hard Irish border and a threat to peace in Northern Ireland which was driving the government’s approach to Brexit.
But, arguing that it is now clear that was “built on a foundation of sand” because neither the UK nor the EU would enforce border checks, he said, “today we’re told that it’s because Northern Ireland isn’t prepared”. Jabbing his finger at the Prime Minister, he asked: “When are you going to stop Northern Ireland as an excuse, and do you realise that the importance of this agreement to delivering Brexit and also to the unity of the United Kingdom is such that we will not be used in any scare tactics to push this through?”
Mrs May said that she had “genuinely” been trying to ensure that the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland were respected and Northern Ireland’s place within the UK was respected. She played down the significance of promises from the Taoiseach that there would be no hard border, saying that they had been “contradicted” by the EU.
And Mrs May said that if the UK was to leave without a deal that would necessitate “some form” of direct rule.
Tory MP Sir Desmond Swayne asked whether - if it was necessary for Northern Ireland to have rule from London in order to prepare for no-deal - there was a plan “to deal with that in good time for the 12th of April”. Mrs May responded with one word: “Yes.”