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Suzanne Breen: Unionists united in opposition as Remainers rally around backstop

By Suzanne Breen

Unionists have been at each other's throats over the Stormont stalemate, the cash-for-ash scandal and a myriad of other matters.

But yesterday they united in cementing their absolute opposition to Theresa May's Brexit deal following the publication of the Attorney General's legal advice.

Arlene Foster, Robin Swann and Jim Allister were, for once, singing from the same hymn sheet.

Unlike the pro-Remain parties, there was no joint press conference. But in separate statements, the DUP, the Ulster Unionists and the TUV insisted that no unionist worth their salt could sign up to the deal and called for the backstop to be binned.

Sometimes, a secret document doesn't live up to the speculation. This was not such an occasion.

Geoffrey Cox's advice set off alarm bells in even moderate unionist circles. No wonder the Government wanted to keep it under wraps. It said the whole of the UK would form a single customs territory with the EU, but Northern Ireland and Britain would be there on different legal terms.

Only Northern Ireland would be legally part of the customs union, following the full EU customs code. The European Court of Justice would continue to have jurisdiction over its compliance with those rules.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said: "Goods passing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be subject to a declaration process.

"Northern Ireland will remain in the single market for goods and the EU's customs regime, and will be required to apply and comply with the relevant rules and standards, (opening) up regulatory divergence in the future."

Britain would be "essentially treated as a third country by Northern Ireland for goods passing from GB into NI".

The DUP is livid that despite all Mrs May's pledges, economic and trade barriers would be erected within the UK - something it branded "unacceptable and economically mad".

The legal advice said the backstop could continue indefinitely and that the drafting didn't provide for a mechanism that is likely to allow the UK to exit lawfully.

Despite promises to the contrary from Mrs May and Secretary of State Karen Bradley, the TUV said Northern Ireland would be "annexed permanently into the EU".

The Attorney General's full advice, released yesterday, was "more emphatic and plain than that dressed up for the summary" in the House of Commons on Monday, Mr Allister said.

"The trap is clear. All of the UK for now is held in a customs territory with the EU but only Northern Ireland is legally part of the EU Customs Union, where we would stay indefinitely even if GB was released," he added.

"This is utterly incompatible with the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK."

Mrs May had previously stated the very arrangement that she ended up signing up to would be unacceptable to any UK Prime Minister.

Mr Swann said while the Government tried to downplay unionist concerns as recently as last week when he met the Prime Minister and Cabinet Office officials, legal advice reinforcing those fears was actually sitting on their desks.

"What was the point in them spending the best part of a year saying that they shared our concerns if all the while they were negotiating a deal that contains everything we were concerned about?" he asked.

The UUP leader said Mrs May must stop "flogging this dead deal" and pursue alternatives.

But nationalist parties and Alliance want her to do nothing of the sort. Sinn Fein MLA Conor Murphy said the backstop had been agreed by the Government and the EU, and the Attorney General's advice changed nothing.

"It must be maintained and protected. It can't be derailed or undermined by the votes of Brexiteer MPs," he stressed.

An SDLP spokesperson added: "There will potentially be minor differences between GB and NI if the backstop is required, but they will be minimal.

"This is not a secret, but any divergence is a consequence of Brexit and the extreme version of Brexit that the DUP insisted on pursuing. If the DUP cannot accept this consequence of Brexit, they should do the honourable thing and support a referendum on the deal."

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said nobody should be shocked at the legal advice on the backstop, because "its nature and purpose should have been evident to anyone following the negotiations over the past 18 months".

The backstop was needed to protect the Good Friday Agreement and to avoid a hard border, he insisted.

Mr Farry didn't see it undermining the Union - it "may create comparative economic advantages for this region", he said.

Belfast Telegraph

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