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Contempt debate launched as DUP demand complete Brexit legal advice

By Suzanne Breen

The DUP last night joined the opposition parties in a successful move to trigger historic 'contempt of Parliament' proceedings against the Government's top law officer Geoffrey Cox.

The party sent a joint letter with Labour, the Liberal Democrats, SNP and Plaid Cymru to House of Commons Speaker John Bercow urging him to bring the proceedings.

The Speaker last night decided that the Government may have broken Parliamentary rules by not publishing Brexit legal advice.

Mr Bercow said there was "an arguable case" that a contempt of Parliament had been committed.

His decision will mean that MPs will today debate and vote on whether to refer the case to the Standards Committee and that is expected to delay the start of the debate on Theresa May's Brexit deal.

The DUP and the opposition parties condemned the Government for taking the unprecedented decision not to publish the full legal advice on the Brexit deal as demanded by MPs. "Parliament can not be ignored," said DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds.

The heaviest penalties for MPs found guilty of contempt - defined as those who obstruct or hinder the work of Parliament - are suspension or even expulsion from the Commons.

The Attorney General sparked fury among MPs as he published only a "legal position" yesterday, rather than the "full legal advice" they had demanded last month.

The DUP deputy leader called on Mr Cox to confirm that the system in the deal meant to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland could be "permanent in law", despite some Cabinet ministers arguing that it could not.

Mr Dodds told MPs: "He said this whole business was 'deeply unsatisfactory and unattractive', which makes me wonder why he's recommending it?

"And it seems to me a situation where we're now reliant on our learned friends to take cases in international court, rather than this sovereign parliament being able to decide when we can get out of these arrangements."

He said the Commons needed to see the full legal advice given to the Government, adding "that must happen".

Mr Dodds continued: "The overall context of this is as he has said - a deeply unattractive, unsatisfactory presentation - and he needs to therefore, rather than recommend this agreement, recommend that it be rejected."

However, in a statement, Ulster Unionist peer Lord Empey described it as "an awful mess" for which the DUP must share responsibility. He accused the party of having been "asleep at the wheel" on Brexit.

Defending the decision not to publish the full Brexit legal advice, Mr Cox told the Commons he firmly believed that doing otherwise would be "contrary to the public interest". He added: "There is nothing to see here."

The legal advice stated that the Brexit deal does not breach the Good Friday peace agreement - and does not "affect the principle of consent or any other provision ... in any way".

And it suggested that the Irish border backstop provision in the Brexit deal could continue indefinitely "unless and until it is superseded" by a new agreement,

Mr Cox said: "I make no bones about it - I would have preferred to have seen a unilateral right of termination in this backstop.

"I would have preferred to have seen a clause to exit if negotiations had irretrievably broken down.

"But I'm prepared to lend my support to this agreement because I do not believe that we're likely to be entrapped in it permanently."

Meanwhile Secretary of State Karen Bradley last night said the people of Northern Ireland "wanted the Government to get on with it" and deliver the best Brexit deal for them.

Ms Bradley said that was the "overwhelming message" she received after talking to "people from all walks of life".

She continued: "I believe this deal is the best possible way to do that. This week is hugely important as the debate in the House of Commons about the deal begins.

"I hope my colleagues take the time to listen to the businesses and people of Northern Ireland who support this deal ahead of the vote next week."

Mrs Bradley said the deal on the table would "protect vital jobs and investment and allow businesses in Northern Ireland to seize upon new opportunities as we strike new trade deals around the world".

Meanwhile, Mrs May called on Tory MPs to "hold their nerve" and back the deal.

The Prime Minister insisted she would still have a job after the crucial Commons vote on December 11.

She told ITV yesterday: "At the end of the line it is, I think, about holding our nerve and getting this over the line so we can deliver on Brexit and people can have that better future.

"My job is making sure that we do what the public asked us to: we leave the EU but we do it in a way that is good for them."

Belfast Telegraph

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