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Brexit: DUP backs Boris Johnson's offer but Sinn Fein hits out at Stormont veto plans

  • Plan could see Northern Ireland stay in EU single market for goods but leave customs union
  • New customs checks will be needed for cross-border trade but PM says an open border in NI can be maintained
  • The NI Assembly is given a say before plan is implemented and then every four years
Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party Arlene Foster at the Conservative Party Conference at the Manchester Convention Centre. Danny Lawson/PA Wire
Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party Arlene Foster at the Conservative Party Conference at the Manchester Convention Centre. Danny Lawson/PA Wire

The DUP has welcomed Boris Johnson's Brexit deal offer, which the Prime Minister says will see Northern Ireland leave the EU Customs Union.

However, Sinn Fein has hit out at the so-called Stormont lock, which gives the Northern Ireland Assembly a vote on whether to approve his proposed "two borders/four years" arrangements or extend them beyond an initial timeframe of 2024.

In a letter to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, the Prime Minister said the backstop, which would keep Northern Ireland in the EU Customs Union and parts of the single market, must be removed.

Mr Johnson said he favoured a looser free trade deal and "in these circumstances the proposed 'backstop' is a bridge to nowhere".

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The four page letter from Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, sent to the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker. Photo by HO/10 Downing Street/AFP via Getty Images

Mr Johnson said his plan - an alternative to the backstop - had five elements:

- A commitment to a solution compatible with the Good Friday Agreement

- Confirmation of support for long-standing areas of UK-Ireland collaboration including the Common Travel Area and north-south co-operation

- The potential creation of an all-Ireland regulatory zone covering all goods including agri-food, with regulatory checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain

- The consent of those affected by that all-Ireland zone with the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly given the chance to endorse the plan before it comes into effect and then every four years

- Northern Ireland will be fully part of the UK customs territory and outside the EU's customs union, meaning custom checks for cross-border trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland

Mr Johnson claimed his plan was "entirely compatible with maintaining an open border in Northern Ireland". He said it would be accompanied by a New Deal for Northern Ireland "in order to support Northern Ireland throughout this transition".

A spokesperson for the DUP said: "The DUP has always indicated that the United Kingdom must leave the EU as one nation and in so doing that no barriers to trade are erected within the UK.

"This offer provides a basis for the EU to continue in a serious and sustained engagement with the UK Government without risk to the internal market of the United Kingdom.

"It will require changes to the draft withdrawal treaty and we welcome the fact that all sides now recognise that requirement in order to secure agreement.

"These proposals would ensure that Northern Ireland would be out of the EU Customs Union and the Single Market as with the rest of the United Kingdom."

The spokesperson said the proposals are "entirely consistent" with the spirit and principles of the Good Friday Agreement and demonstrates "commitment to work with the Republic of Ireland whilst respecting the integrity of Northern Ireland's economic and constitutional position within the United Kingdom."

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Michelle O’Neill has condemned Boris Johnson’s proposals (Liam McBurney/PA)

However, Sinn Fein hit out at the proposals, insisting the DUP will never be allowed to wield a Stormont veto on the post-Brexit arrangements for the Irish border.

Deputy leader Michelle O'Neill said there were no circumstances in which it would be acceptable for her former partners in government to have the power to block the continuation of Northern Ireland specific customs and regulatory measures.

Stormont voting structures mean a bloc of MLAs from either the nationalist and unionist community can veto certain decisions, even if a majority of members back them.

Ms O'Neill was commenting on the potential of the DUP exercising that power on a potential vote in 2025 on extending the arrangement.

"Boris Johnson has today again rehearsed this role for the Stormont Assembly, an Assembly which currently does not sit, currently does not sit because of the position of the DUP and the Tories and because of Brexit," she said.

"There can be no situation whatsoever when the DUP are going to be afforded a veto, a lock, a blocking mechanism of any form in which to thwart any progress that could potentially be made on Brexit between both the EU and the British government.

"It is just a nonsense, an illogical statement to make and to keep making it over and over again."

She branded Boris Johnson's latest Brexit proposals as a "political game changer" that drives a "coach and horses through the Good Friday Agreement".

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said:  “The Prime Minister and the DUP are fooling no-one with these proposals. This new protocol should be deeply concerning for all those who have the long term economic and constitutional welfare of Northern Ireland and its people at heart.

“Northern Ireland would be locked into continual political debates about Brexit and alignment with the rest of the UK or EU. They would set the theme of every Assembly and Westminster election.

"It plunges Northern Ireland into a referendum in the Assembly Chamber every four years with high stakes consequences for our people. It will keep our businesses and agri-food sector in a perpetual cycle of uncertainty.

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SDLP leader Colum Eastwood. (Brian Lawless/PA)

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the proposals were "dead on arrival".

 “This is no compromise proposal. We started this discussion on the basis that we don’t want any borders on this island. The British Government’s counter offer is two borders by land and sea that are unacceptable to business, border communities and a majority of MLAs, "the Foyle MLA said.

“The imposition of customs checks, with a need for physical infrastructure, will introduce heavy burdens on cross-border businesses and supply chains that will seriously threaten profitability in key sectors. We have already rejected it.

"The business community has already rejected it. This is a proposal from a government that doesn’t understand the complexities of this island, but more to the point they don’t care."

Earlier Alliance Leader Naomi Long said the UK Government proposals to offer “two borders for four years” as an alternative to the backstop are “in no way serious.”

“This proposal is in many ways the worst of both worlds, as we’ve gone from having no new borders to having two,” said Mrs Long.

The MEP added: “The idea the Assembly, which hasn’t sat for nearly three years, would be able to come back and take on the responsibility for an international treaty which is between heads of sovereign Governments, is a ludicrous proposition."

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