Belfast Telegraph

Brexit: Unionism at loggerheads as Empey and Donaldson in war of words over Johnson's offer to the EU

Lord Empey
Lord Empey
Gareth Cross

By Gareth Cross

UUP grandee Lord Empey has hit back at DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson as their war of words over Boris Johnson's Brexit proposals rages on.

Lord Empey, a former UUP colleague of Sir Jeffrey, said that the PM's plan, supported by the DUP, would effectively give Northern Ireland the "special status" that nationalists and republicans have campaigned for.

On Saturday the UUP Chairman questioned how any unionist could give their support to the Prime Minister's proposed deal.

However, DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson rejected the criticism, saying the proposals will not create a trade barrier in the Irish Sea.

"It’s easy to sit on the sidelines and complain without offering a single realistic solution," the former UUP MLA said.

Sir Jeffrey accused Lord Empey of "fighting battles against the DUP which he lost fifteen years ago" and said that unionist voters want their leaders to work together.

"He should deal with his bitterness, focus on the policy rather than the person and move on," the DUP MP said.

He said that the PM's deal "removes the threat of the backstop and fully respects our constitutional position within the UK". 

"Sinn Fein and Dublin know it and that is why they have expressed their opposition to this deal with so much anger," the Lagan Valley MP said.

After reading Sir Jeffrey's comments Lord Empey issued a response of his own, saying that the DUP MP "clearly doesn't understand what he has agreed to".

He said that government documents on the Brexit proposals state that Northern Ireland will be in a "different regulatory area to Great Britain and we would be governed by laws over which we have no say".

Lord Empey said this establishes that Northern Ireland will have a "special status".

The veteran politician said the proposal to give the Stormont Assembly a say over Northern Ireland's relationship with the EU "would make it a border poll every four years and destroy and chance of building normal politics here".

He also pointed to confusion over how the Stormont veto would work, saying the Secretary of State had been unclear over the precise arrangements.

“This is reckless stuff. It is clear that this has not been thought through - we have had three suggestions in three days as to how this would be done," Lord Empey said.

"I cannot see how the EU would agree to this bright idea. Furthermore, there is no support for it from local parties anyway.

Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble (centre) leads Jeffrey Donaldson and Reg Empey into talks with the British and Irish Governments at Stormont in June 1999
Ulster Unionist leader David Trimble (centre) leads Jeffrey Donaldson and Reg Empey into talks with the British and Irish Governments at Stormont in June 1999

“This is seat of your pants politics. Not thought through and no consultation in advance on something vital to our future."

Lord Empey said that the DUP needed to "think again" about the Prime Minister's proposals.

"I want us to honour the 2016 referendum and see an end to the uncertainty by us leaving with a deal as soon as we can," he said.

"This scheme gives us the worst of both worlds - two borders not one. Larne becomes the point of entry as well as Newry. This is not what leave voters imagined in 2016."

The veteran unionist said that the current plan would stop Great Britain trading freely with Northern Ireland.

"This is the Achilles heel of his case and the total abandonment of all his party's promises over the last few years," Lord Empey said.

“Smoke and mirrors won't be enough to get the DUP out of this mess. It’s a sad day when any unionist party envisages us being in a totally different 'regulatory zone' from the rest of our country.

"This will lead to further calls for our economy to align with the Republic's, and the complication and uncertainty of being in a zone where regulations are different on either side of the channel between us and Scotland, can only be a barrier to new investment.”

Speaking earlier on Sunday Sir Jeffrey said that the UUP had achieved "absolutely nothing" in their past attempts to work with the Conservative Party.

"The DUP sought and won the commitment in the PM’s proposals for the prior and ongoing consent of the Executive and the Assembly to any regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom," he said.

The MP said that the UK as a whole is leaving the EU single market and that any remaining regulatory alignment with the EU would only apply to goods such as agri-food to appease Northern Ireland's farmers and the business community.

"The DUP is absolutely clear that an all-Ireland economic zone, with all goods and services exclusively under EU rules, and the resulting regulatory border in the Irish Sea is not something we would support," Sir Jeffrey said.

"Nor will we support trade barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and that is why this deal means Northern Ireland will remain firmly within the U.K. customs arrangements and outside the EU customs union."

Sir Jeffrey said that it made sense for Northern Ireland to have distinct arrangements in cases like the Single Electricity Market which is "economically beneficial".

He said that Mr Johnson recognised that the backstop "risked weakening the Belfast Agreement" and that consent from both nationalists and unionists would be needed to reach agreement.

"That of course remains our position. This is fundamental to democratic accountability and our place in the Union and all unionists should be supporting the Prime Minister in his stance.”

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