The DUP Brexit spokesman has said his party has not signed up to any border backstop, adding that the former leader of the UUP is on another planet for suggesting so.
Sammy Wilson, DUP MP for East Antrim, made the remarks in response to comments published in the News Letter on Friday from Sir Reg Empey, now a UUP lord.
At the heart of the war of words is the idea of a Brexit “backstop” – the set of rules for dealing with Irish border issues which will kick in if no other solution is found.
The notion first came to prominence last December, when the UK government and the EU readied themselves to announce a major document setting out agreed positions in the Brexit talks, including what would happen if an overarching Brexit deal cannot done.
However the DUP halted the plans and effectively had the document (known as the “joint report”) re-drafted.
The new draft of the document contained a pledge to avoid “any new infrastructure” on the border (paragraph 43), as well as one which said: “In the absence of agreed solutions, the UK will maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 Agreement.” (Paragraph 49)
It also contained a section, understood to have been inserted at the behest of the DUP (paragraph 50), which said that “in the absence of agreed solutions, as set out in the previous paragraph, the UK will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK”.
Afterwards, Arlene Foster released a statement saying the party had managed to “secure changes to the document”, but felt “there is still more work to be done”.
“We cautioned the Prime Minister about proceeding with this agreement in its present form given the issues which still need to be resolved and the views expressed to us by many of her own party colleagues,” Mrs Foster had said.
“However, it was ultimately a matter for the Prime Minister to decide how she chose to proceed.”
Today, the nature of any border backstop is a major sticking point in the exit talks.
Mr Wilson yesterday condemned the Prime Minister for “agreeing to this nonsense of the backstop which has now dominated all of the negotiations,” saying “to a certain extent she has only herself to blame”.
But Lord Empey said it was last December’s “joint report” which gave birth to the backstop, adding: “After amendment, this agreement was supported by the DUP and by David Davis and Boris Johnson. Now all of them are trying to distance themselves from the time bomb they created last year...
“What I find intolerable is the attempt by the DUP to pretend they had nothing to do with this – they had. They were taking credit for the amendments to the Joint Report last December and now it is coming back to bite us all.”
Mr Wilson has now hit back, hard.
“What planet does that man live on?” he said.
“I mean, we know that the Shinners are good at re-writing history. Is he now engaged in re-writing history as well?
“What happened last December was very clear – the Prime Minister signed up to this, we objected to it, she had to cancel her lunch with the EU heads of state to come and try and sort the thing out.”
What happened, he said, was the original document had contained “the Irish version and the EU version of a backstop”, but the DUP was able to “ensure the document was altered”.
“I admit, we didn’t succeed in getting it removed,” he said.
“But we got a section put into that document which ensured there could be no separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
“That’s why we’re now at the impasse that the Prime Minister signed up to the backstop, and we – using our position – made her sign up to an assurance that Northern Ireland would not be treated in the way which the EU wanted it to be treated.
“Because of our intervention the Prime Minister has now got two contradictory situations she’s got to try and reconcile – and she can’t do it!”
He added: “We didn’t accept any backstop. The bit that we got into it was to prevent the backstop from being able to be implemented, because the government and the EU made an equal promise that Northern Ireland would not be separated from the rest of the UK.
“It wasn’t [within] our power to get it removed. But what we did get was it blocked.”
When asked why, if the existence of any backstop at all is such a significant problem, the DUP did not just collapse the government last December rather than go along with an altered version of the plans, Mr Wilson said they instead tried to “ameliorate the impact” of it.
If the DUP had simply collapsed the government it would have led to a general election and “we didn’t have the support of anyone else in the Conservative Party” in terms of their approach to Brexit – but that many Tories have now “come to the realisation of how dangerous [the backstop] is”.
He added: “We got it thwarted. Why do you not have backstop arrangement in place at present? Because we got the withdrawal agreement amended to in effect put a block on any agreement on the kind of backstop the EU wanted.
“What’s now been agreed in relation to safeguarding Northern Ireland is totally incompatible with the backstop.
“Not being in a position to get the backstop withdrawn – because the EU and the Irish wouldn’t withdraw it, and the British government wouldn’t push them to have it withdrawn – the best we could do was to make sure it couldn’t be implemented.
“That’s why we’re in the current state. Because the Prime Minister’s room for manoeuvre has been substantially removed from her, because she agreed to the requirements we wanted in the withdrawal document – namely, that nothing could be done, in any withdrawal agreement, to have Northern Ireland treated differently from the rest of the UK.”