Last Monday evening I travelled to Brussels along with our MEP Diane Dodds. We had a series of meetings arranged with representatives of the EU27 as well as the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
It was in that meeting with Michel Barnier and his team that we received a very clear outline of the type of post-Brexit arrangement the EU envisioned for Northern Ireland.
The deal on offer was certainly unique but as the first State to leave the EU club, any deal will be unique. The EU spin on this offer suggested that Northern Ireland would have the best of both worlds — ie we would have full access to the EU single market and full access to the UK single market. That was a lie. We would not.
Under the EU’s plan, Great Britain-based businesses would have a barrier when they would seek to trade with Northern Ireland. Such a barrier cuts right to the heart of what is at stake here. The United Kingdom is one nation. There should not be international-style borders within it.
I am a unionist. I became involved in politics to build a better Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. Back in June 2017, when we agreed a confidence-and-supply arrangement with the Conservative Party, central to it was helping Northern Ireland financially but also the entire United Kingdom. I want every part of the United Kingdom to prosper.
I would not tolerate a trade barrier between England and Wales any more than I would tolerate one between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The dangers to the Union and our single market were clearly demonstrated by how quickly the SNP demanded the same for Scotland as was offered to Northern Ireland.
Countries like the United Kingdom have some regional variations but what is held in common is what is fundamental to make their national markets work. We may pay lower rates here than council tax in England. Different states in the USA would be the same. However, what is made in each part can be sold within those countries without extra barriers.
Indeed, unionists who voted Remain have contacted me to express their vehement opposition to any deal which would limit Northern Ireland’s access to the United Kingdom single market.
However, it would be wrong to think that the DUP are the only people in Parliament who see the EU’s proposal as unacceptable. ‘No sea border’ has support across the House of Commons.
I believe that the Prime Minister is in her own beliefs a committed unionist. However, she should learn from her previous female predecessor, Margaret Thatcher. Despite her unionist convictions, others persuaded Thatcher to sign the Anglo-Irish Agreement. She later deeply regretted the choice she had made. However, we do not want nor need the regrets of another Prime Minister. We want the right choices made. We want her to stand by her principles and instincts rather than accepting a dodgy deal foisted on her by others.
I fully appreciate the risks of a ‘no deal’ but the dangers of a bad deal are worse. If true to her principles Mrs May would not and should not choose the path to effectively cut Northern Ireland adrift.
The DUP’s actions this week are not as some have suggested about ‘flexing muscle’. This is no game. Anyone engaging in this in a light-hearted way foolishly fails to grasp the gravity of the decisions we will make in the coming weeks.
Over time the gap between UK regulations and EU regulations would only grow. With double red tape for businesses, such an arrangement would add costs for businesses and consumers.
This backstop arrangement would not be temporary. It would be the permanent annexation of Northern Ireland away from the rest of the United Kingdom and forever leave us subject to rules made in a place where we have no say.
The coming days, weeks and months will be critical. The decisions taken will shape the type of Northern Ireland that our grandchildren will live in.
The DUP will have teams in London, Brussels and Belfast meeting key influencers to ensure our position is fully understood and upheld.
On Monday, I will travel to Dublin for a range of meetings. We want a deal which respects Northern Ireland’s constitutional position but one that also works for our nearest neighbours in the Republic of Ireland.
Yesterday when we met our MPs and MLAs collectively, people were united behind our plan and united in standing firm not just for Northern Ireland but for the Union.
I reminded people that the stand we are taking is not about the party, this is about the Union and the shape of the United Kingdom for the future.