Lord Empey claims DUP has failed to protect Union
Ulster Unionist peer Lord Empey has said the DUP has failed to protect the Union - and must shoulder the blame for the Brexit backstop crisis.
Speaking at the annual dinner of the East Antrim Ulster Unionist Association in Whitehead on Saturday, Party Chairman, Lord Empey said: “The proposals published by the Prime Minister for our future relationship with the EU confirm what most of us feared, that Northern Ireland will, if this agreement proceeds, effectively have a 'special status' within the EU but be different from the rest of the UK in the long term.
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“An analysis of the backstop proposal published last December, spelled out that this would happen, as it was riddled with contradictions and elevated the so called Irish border problem to a far greater extent that was warranted.
“Last year the DUP told us that they had great influence with the Government. Arlene Foster said 'Unionism has never had so much influence in Parliament'.
Nigel Dodds said 'Today, it is the DUP that stands at the heart of government, not in Northern Ireland, but across the United Kingdom.'
“Fast forward to Thursday and the House of Commons. What did Nigel reveal there? I quote from Hansard:- 'I stand here today and take the Prime Minister through the list of promises and pledges she made to this House and to us privately, about the future of Northern Ireland in the future relationship with the EU, but I fear it would be a waste of time, since she clearly does not listen.'
“As Robin Swann said at the weekend, they were asleep at the wheel and so puffed up with their own self-importance that they made a strategic blunder of unprecedented proportions by allowing the backstop to go unchallenged last year.
“The primary function of any unionist is to protect the Union. In this the DUP have failed terribly.
“They have nobody else to blame for the mess this time – it’s down to them and them alone for failing to protect Northern Ireland's interests.”
But DUP deputy leader MP Nigel Dodds said his party’s stance and opposition to Theresa May’s withdrawal treaty has been vindicated.
Mr Dodds said the “damning criticism spelt out how dangerous this withdrawal agreement is”.
“These are exactly the reasons why Northern Ireland unionism stands united in opposition to this draft Withdrawal Agreement,” he said.
“This deal would place a trade border in the Irish Sea, subject us to EU rules without any power to influence or change them and binds us to the EU with no unilateral ability to leave. Indeed, Northern Ireland is part of the EU customs union not the UK’s.
“Even Jeremy Corbyn gets it, although nationalists and republicans here are desperate for him to stop saying it.”
Mr Dodds added: “I understand why some people fear a ‘no deal’ scenario. But the choice is between this very bad deal and the right deal.
“With MPs on all sides of the House pointing to the dangers for the Union of the Withdrawal Agreement, it is clear that it is time to work for a better deal which does not undermine the integrity of the United Kingdom.”
DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson also rejected claims his party was isolated, saying its position was supported by businesses and farmers worried at being cut off from markets in Great Britain.
He said it is "certainly not" the position that the DUP is risking alienating its key supporters, such as business leaders and the UFU, by opposing the draft Brexit deal. "That's certainly not the feedback we're getting this weekend. We've had a lot of support from people who recognise that this deal has the potential to separate us from our business market in Great Britain.
"It's not something that many business people or farmers believe is in the best economic interests of Northern Ireland," he said.
"We are clear that this proposed deal breaches a red line for us in that it has the potential to create a border in the Irish Sea and to separate us increasingly from our biggest single market. We believe that will be damaging to the agri-food sector and to the economy in Northern Ireland, so whilst we respect the opinions of the business representatives and of the UFU we disagree with their conclusion and in so doing we know we have the support of many business people and farmers in Northern Ireland who share our concern about this deal."
He described the "idea that the DUP stands alone" in its opposition to the Brexit deal on the table as "nonsense".
"The UUP, the TUV, all oppose this deal," he said.
"How many votes did the UFU get at the last general election?
"The idea that the DUP stands alone in this is nonsense, there isn't a single unionist party so far that has backed this deal, and I have spoken to farmers and business people in my constituency over the weekend who support the stance of the DUP."
Mr Donaldson also revealed that the DUP is "inclined to support" the Finance Bill - the legislation which passes the Budget into law - despite suggestions that his party could withhold its backing to pressurise Prime Minister Theresa May into changing the draft Brexit deal.
"We will of course listen to the debate very carefully and consider any amendments that are brought forward, but in principle the Finance Bill is part of our confidence and supply agreement and as such we would be inclined to support the bill," he said.
"The Finance Bill delivers significant enhancements for expenditure and public services in Northern Ireland, and we need to take that into account."
Regarding the DUP's support for Theresa May and the confidence and supply agreement which sees the party prop up the Tory government in the Commons, he added: "The question as to who leads the Conservative Party is a question for that party, not for the DUP. The confidence and supply agreement is with the Conservative Party, not with the Prime Minister, and as such we will continue to work with the government and the focus is on the Brexit deal and on the forthcoming vote in the House of Commons, and after that we will of course reflect on the implications for our future cooperation."
DUP colleague, Nigel Dodds MP, said "Northern Ireland unionism stands united" and that it was "time to work for a better deal which does not undermine the integrity of the United Kingdom".
Meanwhile, TUV leader Jim Allister accused those supporting the government of "lackey syndrome" and hit out at the UFU.
"How the UFU in particular could join this chorus of embracing the break-up of the UK single market, on which they depend, is beyond rationalisation," he said. "I'm greatly disappointed that the UFU has abandoned the settled will of most farmers that they wish to leave the EU in all its parts."