Belfast Telegraph

Future of Stormont in doubt over veto, DUP and SF both warn

John Bercow
John Bercow
Jeffrey Donaldson

By Gavin Cordon

The DUP has told the Government that it might not return to Stormont if it doesn't get a veto on Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland.

Speaking in the House of Commons, DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said he "cannot emphasise enough" how important the principle of consent is to unionists.

Yesterday Sinn Fein indicated the opposite - that it would block the formation of a new Assembly if the final Brexit deal were to hand a veto to any party.

The parties are at loggerheads over how the Assembly consents to post-Brexit arrangements on the island of Ireland.

According to the new Brexit deal, the arrangements will come into effect at the start of 2021 and, after an initial four-year period, Assembly Members will vote whether to continue to apply them.

That vote will be conducted on a simple majority head count and will not require the support of a majority of unionists and a majority of nationalists.

This means the DUP would not have the chance to exercise a veto, and it insists that consent must be on the basis of both unionists and nationalists agreeing.

Last night Sir Jeffrey told MPs: "The idea that a decision of the momentous nature of the one we will be expected to take in four years' time does not reflect adequately the principle of consent - as expressed in the Belfast Agreement - has serious implications for our ability to support the restoration of devolution without that safeguard.

"And I say with all seriousness to the Secretary of State, if this issue is not addressed it goes well beyond this Brexit deal."

Responding, Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith said: "This protocol is for a reserved matter. It is not for the Assembly. The Belfast Agreement is extremely clear that there will be matters which will not be subject to the consent mechanism in the Assembly."

Earlier Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald warned that her party would boycott a return to Stormont should the consent mechanism be reinstated. She said that "if the British Government were to make the fatal error of granting a veto to unionism over Brexit protections, if they were foolish enough to insist that that veto could be exercised through the Assembly, then there will be no Assembly here in Belfast".

Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is to seek to fast-track legislation to ratify his Brexit deal through the Commons in just three days as he attempts to avoid another delay to Brexit.

Leader of the House Jacob Rees-Mogg told MPs debate on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) would start today with ministers hoping to get it through all its Commons stages by Thursday.

If they are successful it could pave the way for the House of Lords to sit over the weekend in time for the Bill to receive its royal assent at the beginning of next week. But they are likely to face Opposition attempts to amend the legislation including the "programme motion" setting out the Commons timetable for the Bill.

Mr Rees-Mogg warned MPs that if the programme motion was defeated they would not be able to get it through Parliament in time for the UK to leave with a deal on October 31.

"People who do not vote for the programme motion will not be voting for Brexit on October 31," he said.

Earlier Commons Speaker John Bercow rejected a bid by ministers for a fresh meaningful vote on Mr Johnson's agreement struck last week with Brussels.

Mr Bercow ruled the special Commons sitting on Saturday had voted to delay approval until the implementing legislation had been passed and that any further vote would be "repetitive and disorderly" under House rules. He told the Commons: "Today's motion is in substance the same as Saturday's motion, and the House has decided the matter."

Downing Street said ministers were "disappointed" with the Speaker's ruling, and would now go ahead with the introduction of the WAB.

Under the timetable set out by Mr Rees-Mogg, the Bill will get its second reading on the principle of the legislation on Tuesday, followed by a vote on the programme motion.

If it is passed they will then move to the committee stage when MPs can put down amendments.

Despite Saturday's Commons defeat ministers believe they do have the numbers to get the Bill through with the support of rebel Labour MPs in Leave-supporting areas and former Tories now sitting as independents.

But, with no Commons majority and Mr Johnson's erstwhile allies in the DUP resolutely opposed, he still faces a major battle to achieve his pledge to lead the country out of the EU by the October 31 deadline.

Last night DUP MPs asked for clarification from the Government on whether Northern Ireland goods travelling to other parts of the UK will require customs declarations.

Speaking in the House of Commons, East Belfast DUP MP Gavin Robinson said the Government's responses on the issue had been "calamitous".

He added: "Can he answer that question that was asked earlier, is it the case that Northern Ireland goods will require customs declarations to enter what is supposed to be unfettered access to the rest of their own country?"

To heckles of "answer it" from fellow DUP MPs, Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith said: "On the issue of checks and forms, unfettered access is a key part of this protocol, and I'll be working to ensure we deliver on that in the interest of Northern Ireland business in the coming weeks."

It came as Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament's Brexit co-ordinator, said the Brexit Steering Group had recommended they should "await the full ratification on the UK side" before the European Parliament votes on the deal.

Meanwhile, judges in Scotland's highest civil court, who have been asked to rule on whether the PM lawfully complied with the Benn Act, delayed making a decision until it becomes clear to them it was "complied with in full".

Under the Benn Act, which was passed by MPs trying to fend off a no-deal Brexit, Mr Johnson was forced to send an unsigned letter to Brussels requesting an extension to the October 31 deadline because MPs did not support his deal on Saturday.

But he signed a second letter saying a delay would be a mistake.

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