Northern Ireland pro-Remain parties say 'backstop' option secures stability
A 'backstop' option keeping the UK aligned with the EU's Customs Union after Brexit represents the bottom line to safeguard stability, pro-Remain parties in Northern Ireland have said in a rare joint statement.
The proposal was drawn up to avoid a hard Irish border if the EU and UK cannot agree a deal before next year's withdrawal.
The backstop would mean the UK matching EU customs duties to avoid checks on goods passing between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
A joint statement by Sinn Fein, the SDLP, Alliance and Green Party said that "we cannot withstand exclusion from the single market or customs union".
"That the protection of the Good Friday Agreement in all of its parts, including North/South and East/West co-operation is critical to maintaining relationships within, and between these islands.
"That the backstop agreed by both the British Government and the EU27 is the bottom line in order to safeguard our political and economic stability now and for the future."
Unionist parties, including the DUP, whose 10 pro-Brexit MPs are propping up Theresa May's Government, and the UUP did not sign the declaration.
Mrs May's favoured option is a customs partnership whereby the UK would collect tariffs set by the EU customs union on goods coming into the UK.
She faces serious opposition from Brexiteer members of her own Government who back a model relying on technology and advance customs checks to minimise impediments at the frontier. The EU has expressed doubts about both options.
The four Northern Ireland political parties' statement added that they "all share the common position that we should stay within both the single market and customs union and that there should be no hard border on the island of Ireland or between the two islands".
"This is critical to protecting investment, jobs, trade and the hard-won peace."
The parties said "this week sees us entering into another crucial stage in the Brexit negotiations".
"All of the outstanding issues relating to the withdrawal agreement will be considered in relation to Northern Ireland/Ireland and the future relationship," they added.
"In relation to the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, Theresa May has agreed that a backstop solution for the border will form part of the legal text of the withdrawal agreement, and that this backstop would apply, unless and until, another solution is found. Time is of the essence as we approach the European Council meeting next month."
There has been dismay among committed supporters of EU withdrawal at reports that Theresa May's Brexit war cabinet has discussed a plan under which the whole of Britain would observe EU external tariffs until the practical arrangements are in place to keep the Irish border open.
There are fears in the Leave camp that UK involvement in EU structures beyond the conclusion of the transition period in December 2020 may end up being indefinitely extended.
Facing a backlash from pro-Brexit cabinet ministers, the Prime Minister yesterday sought to dismiss fears that the backstop could become permanent.
Ms May repeated her claim that the "right solution" to the Irish border dilemma lay in a new overarching economic agreement to be negotiated.
And she said of the backstop: "If it is necessary, it will be in a very limited set of circumstances for a limited time, but we are working on achieving that commitment to Northern Ireland through our overall relationship with the European Union."
The comments came after Michael Gove signalled his unease about the backstop plan - which would see the UK retain EU tariff levels into the 2020s.
"The whole point about the backstop is that it's intended not to be implemented, but it's there just in case," the environment secretary said.
Earlier, Boris Johnson issued his own veiled warning that the backstop plan - to be set out in writing to Brussels in the next few weeks - must not be a "betrayal" of the referendum vote.
Speaking on a trip to Latin America, the foreign secretary said: "Brexiteers fearing betrayal over the customs backstop must understand that the prime minister has been very clear that neither option is an outcome we desire - we want a deal with the EU and she will deliver it.
"I'm convinced that the prime minister will be true to her promises of a Brexit deal - that sees Britain come out of the customs union and single market, have borders as frictionless as possible, reject European Court of Justice interference, control immigration and free to conduct unhindered free trade deals across the world."
However, it is thought unlikely that the EU will accept a time-limited deal, having stated the backstop must remain in place until another solution is found to avoid a hard border.
Speaking during a visit in Cheshire, Mrs May said: "The European Commission between December and March outlined their backstop solution.
"That was unacceptable to the UK Government, I think it will be unacceptable to any UK Government because it effectively put a border down the Irish Sea.
"So, what we are proposing is an alternative backstop proposal but nobody wants this to be the solution that is achieved."