Backstop offer cosmetic

Northern Ireland to get ‘veto’ if Brexit backstop triggered, but Nigel Dodds and DUP says it’s meaningless

Locked gates at Stormont Buildings in Co Down, east of Belfast. Picture Irish Times

By Democrat reporter
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds has described as “cosmetic and meaningless” a British government proposal that would give the Northern Assembly a “strong role” if the backstop to prevent a hard North-South border was ever triggered.

On Wednesday the British government published a paper pledging to implement a legally-binding commitment to consult Stormont if by 2020 an EU-UK trade deal failed to materialise.

The British cabinet office minister David Lidington said the proposal amounted to giving the Northern Assembly a “veto”.

Ahead of publication of the paper he told the BBC: “We are publishing today a set of Northern Ireland-specific proposals that make clear the continuing place of Northern Ireland within the UK internal market and which will give the Northern Ireland Assembly, when as we all hope it is reconstituted and working again, a veto over introducing any new areas of law and policy into that backstop.”

The paper was published on the second anniversary of the late Martin McGuinness resigning as the Norther’s Deputy First Minister, precipitating the collapse of the Northern Executive and Assembly.

Shortly after the paper was published Mr Dodds made clear that it would not win the support of the party’s 10 MPs who are propping up Theresa May’s government and who the prime minister is hoping can be persuaded to support the EU-UK withdrawal agreement.

“The proposal to ensure ‘a strong role for the Northern Ireland Assembly’ before Northern Ireland specific backstop provisions are given effect is cosmetic and meaningless,” said Mr Dodds.

“The Assembly would not be able to override UK international legal obligations as the backstop provisions would be in the treaty,” he added.

“The government is aware that we will not countenance anything which places Northern Ireland’s place within the internal market of the United Kingdom at risk and which creates significant new regulatory divergence risks within the UK,” he said.

“Our position on all these matters has not changed. We will continue to work to secure a better deal in the time ahead,” said Mr Dodds.

He added: “We reject the backstop and have previously, and consistently, indicated we will not support an internationally legally binding withdrawal agreement that contains its provisions. Such an international treaty supersedes and overrides any contrary domestic legal provisions.”

The Ulster Unionist Party MEP Jim Nicholson said the new proposals to give a restored Assembly a role in any backstop arrangement as “toothless given that there will be no change to the legally binding text of the withdrawal agreement”.

“These proposals fall well short of what is necessary – which is change to the legally binding text of the withdrawal agreement. Up against a legally binding international treaty, this so-called ‘veto’ is merely window dressing and frankly toothless,” he said.

Mr Nicholson added: “If the government does indeed now accept the fact that the backstop will have serious constitutional and democratic implications for Northern Ireland, why is it not pursuing the changes to the legally binding text necessary to garner support for the deal across the United Kingdom?”

In a paper published on Wednesday outlining a series of commitments specific to the North, the British government said if a wider EU/UK trade deal fails to materialise by the end of the Implementation Period in 2020, there would be a legally-binding commitment to “consult” with Stormont before deciding to either enter the backstop or ask for an extension of the Implementation Period.

The view of the Assembly would then be presented to the British parliament before MPs took a final decision on the issue. If the backstop does come into effect, the British government said the Stormont Assembly and Executive would then be given a strong oversight role in its operation.

If the EU proposed changing any laws that impacted the operating of the backstop, the UK would have to consent to such a measure applying to Northern Ireland and the British government has now committed to seek the agreement of the Assembly before signing off on any such change.

The British government has also offered politicians in Northern Ireland a role in influencing its approach to a number of joint UK/EU forums that will be established to oversee the Withdrawal Agreement.

It said it would agree a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with any future Stormont Executive setting out the devolved administration’s role in respect of the three main bodies — the Joint Committee, the Specialised Committee on the Northern Ireland Protocol and the Joint Consultative Working Group.

The British government paper stated: “This will apply solely to Northern Ireland-specific issues — UK-wide provisions are rightly a matter for the UK Government.

“The MoU would agree the appropriate UK delegation to those forums when Northern Ireland-specific issues are being discussed.

“It would also set out the agreed processes and forums to ensure effective dialogue and information-sharing with the Executive on the implementation of the protocol.

“This would ensure that the Northern Ireland voice was represented and heard at each level of the institutional structures that would give effect to the protocol.” – Additional reporting PA

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