Belfast Telegraph

Unionists united in opposition to EU's draft Brexit paper

By Suzanne Breen

Unionists of all shades have united in opposition to the EU's draft legal text on Brexit.

The DUP, Ulster Unionists and TUV all strongly rejected the suggestion of Northern Ireland effectively remaining in a customs union after Brexit if the UK fails to find technological or diplomatic solutions to keeping the border open.

Theresa May told the House of Commons the proposal threatened the make-up of the UK and no Prime Minister could accept it.

But nationalists welcomed Brussels' text with Sinn Fein urging the EU and the Irish government to "stand firm" in the face of opposition from the Tories and the DUP.

Unionists denounced the proposal for a common regulation area on the island of Ireland, and insisted that it threatened the UK's constitutional integrity.

DUP leader Arlene Foster described the idea as "constitutionally unacceptable" and claimed it would be "economically catastrophic for Northern Ireland".

She welcomed Mrs May's commitment that the government would not allow any new border in the Irish Sea and that Northern Ireland would continue to have "unfettered access" to the British market.

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said the text was "nothing short of a move by the EU to annex Northern Ireland" and said it was "a complete non-starter for unionists".

He added: "No British government could accept this. It demonstrates complete and utter contempt for Northern Ireland`s constitutional position and also for the Belfast Agreement."

TUV leader Jim Allister said the "audacity" of Brussels in demanding a border down the Irish Sea was "staggering for anyone unfamiliar with the Machiavellian processes of the EU".

He claimed it was partly driven by a "malevolent attempt to derail Brexit".

On the issue of the border, Brussels' draft text spells out in detail how the principle of "regulatory alignment" agreed in December would possibly be implemented.

It states that if no other solutions are found "the territory of Northern Ireland, excluding the territorial waters of the United Kingdom ... shall be considered to be part of the customs territory of the (European) Union".

It suggests that EU and UK customs authorities should jointly oversee movements between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, while Europe would retain control over aspects of taxation and state aid here.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said the text represented "an act of bad faith on the part of Brussels toward addressing challenges facing the border in a fair and sensible fashion".

He continued: "The suggestion that Northern Ireland would be an 'autonomous' EU customs territory alongside the Republic of Ireland after Brexit would break up the Union and disadvantage our citizens. It is an aggressive proposal which proves Brussels is only serious about the parts of the Belfast Agreement that suits its agenda. The principle of consent would be left in tatters."

UUP MEP Jim Nicholson said the proposals would have "devastating implications" for the UK's constitutional integrity. They showed "a tremendous level of ignorance of the Belfast Agreement" and "a disregard for the principle of consent", he added.

Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O'Neill said the rejection of Brussels' proposals represented "an appalling display of arrogance" by the DUP and Mrs May.

"The Tories and DUP have no right to hold 27 EU nations to ransom," Ms O'Neill said.

"They have no right to play fast and loose with an internationally-binding treaty such as the Good Friday Agreement.

"The other EU nations, and particularly the Dublin government, need to continue to stand firm in the face of that agenda and make it clear that we will not allow our future to be sacrificed on the altar of Tory-DUP arrogance and extremism."

SDLP MLA Claire Hanna welcomed the EU's "cast iron commitment" to protecting the Good Friday Agreement and preventing a hard border. She said it was a time for "calm heads and hard choices" by Brexiteers who needed to face reality.

"They either go for alignment with the customs union and the single market to protect these islands - or they support the EU on the common regulatory area. It is just fantastical to pretend that there's some other mystery option - there isn't," she said.

Green Party leader Steven Agnew said: "The Prime Minister and the DUP appear to be very indignant about the deal that has been published by the EU - but I would say to them that this is the outworking of Brexit. This is what a full hard Brexit looks like."

He urged the UK as a whole to remain in the customs union.

Arlene Foster: I want to see a sensible Brexit

The agreement reached between the United Kingdom and the European Union last December represented significant progress. It allowed the EU Exit discussions to move to phase two.

But in relation to Northern Ireland it also recognised both the need to prevent a hard border with the Republic of Ireland and the need to preserve the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom.

The draft document published by the European Union yesterday was not faithful to the December agreement. The draft legal text contains significant omissions in some areas whilst going beyond what was agreed in others.

No one wants a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. That goal is important and has been upheld by the UK government. However, it is no more important than ensuring there is no hard border erected between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. Both these goals were recognised in December. Unfortunately, only one of them was included within the EU's document.

The Prime Minister was correct that the current text would undermine the UK common market and threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK by placing a border down the Irish Sea.

Mrs May was absolutely right to say that no UK Prime Minister could ever agree to such a proposal. Some 72% of all goods leaving Belfast port are destined for Great Britain. We trade more with the rest of the UK than anywhere else - even combined. Placing a border down the Irish Sea would not just be politically unacceptable for me as a unionist but would be economically catastrophic to us all.

We should also remember that the UK is the single biggest market for goods from the Republic of Ireland. It is not in Ireland's interests to see barriers erected to that trade either.

I want to see a sensible Brexit.

Despite the hyperbole it is possible to reach such an outcome. What should not happen however is to see Northern Ireland used as a bargaining chip in that process.

The people of Northern Ireland turned against violence. It is quite sickening to hear people who barely set foot in Northern Ireland attempt to claim credit for the relative peace we now enjoy. Whilst the EU is very keen to selectively cling to the North-South elements of the Belfast Agreement, the draft legal text does not reflect the East-West elements of the 1998 Agreement.

The draft legal text demonstrates that the EU27 are content to cherry-pick the Belfast Agreement when it suits their ends. That's foolish and shortsighted.

I will be meeting Michel Barnier on Tuesday in Brussels. Our message will be clear. I want to see a sensible Brexit that works for everyone in Northern Ireland, the UK and of course our nearest neighbours also.

A 'no deal' outcome is in no one's interests.

Michelle O'Neill: Onus on Dublin to stand firm with DUP

The British Government and DUP's arrogant dismissal of the EU's draft treaty demonstrates once again that they are prepared to wreck everything that has been achieved in Ireland in pursuit of their mindless 'Little England' Agenda.

It is staggering that, almost two years on from the EU referendum, the British Government haven't been able to present a single workable proposal as to how a new border in Ireland can be avoided.

And when the EU present proposals based on the objective analysis that leaving the customs union is incompatible with avoiding a border in Ireland, the DUP and Tories react with predictable outrage. This is despite the fact that the draft withdrawal agreement clearly reflects the joint report agreed by Theresa May back in December.

It is also a recognition of reality. A reality which the DUP and the Tories created through their mindless pursuit of a Brexit fantasy which is fuelled by a toxic mix of 'Little England' nostalgia.

In order to pursue this fantasy, they are prepared to jettison an internationally-binding agreement that underpins our entire peace process and all the progress that has been made over the past two decades.

They are prepared to ignore the wishes of the majority in the North who voted to remain and risk the destruction of our economy and the imposition of a new frontier on our country.

That can't be allowed to happen. This Tory-DUP wrecking-agenda cannot prevail.

They have no right to hold 27 EU nations to ransom. They have no right to play fast and loose with the Good Friday Agreement.

The North cannot withstand exclusion from the single market and customs union if we are to avoid economic apartheid and a new border on this island.

In the absence of the British Government offering any workable solutions thus far, the only insurance policy which exists is option C of the draft agreement ensuring special arrangements and full regulatory alignment, protection of the Good Friday Agreement and the all-island economy.

Now, more than ever, there is an onus on the Dublin Government to stand firm in the face of the Tory-DUP agenda. Because there is no doubt that the British Government will attempt to undermine the EU text in the time ahead as they continue to pander to the most right-wing elements in their own party and the DUP.

Sinn Fein has consistently called for the North to be designated Special Status within the EU. That is in the best interest of citizens, the economy and our agreements. The EU, through their draft agreement, have now accepted that special arrangements are needed for the North.

The Dublin Government, as one of the EU27, is in a prime position to ensure this happens and that the Tory-DUP wreckers' charter is defeated.

Michelle O'Neill is northern leader of Sinn Fein

Robin Swann: It smashes GFA and principle of consent

The European Commission's Draft Withdrawal Agreement is unacceptable to anyone who understands the concept of national sovereignty.

It claims that "the territory of Northern Ireland, excluding the territorial waters of the United Kingdom (the 'territory of Northern Ireland') shall be considered to be part of the customs territory of the Union."

At the stroke of a pen it seeks to end Northern Ireland's status as an integral part of the United Kingdom and transfer us into some kind of constitutional limbo - nominally part of the UK, but subject to EU rules and regulations.

This suggestion shows utter contempt for the people of Northern Ireland. It smashes the Belfast Agreement and the key principle of consent, whereby only the people of Northern Ireland can alter the constitutional position of Northern Ireland.

I welcome the response from the Prime Minister in which she said "no UK Prime Minister could ever agree to it".

Quite how anyone in Brussels thought this could ever be acceptable is beyond me.

The EU would not expect Belgium to permit Flanders to be placed under different arrangements to the rest of Belgium, nor would they expect France to allow Corsica to be treated as anything less than fully French.

So why on earth should the United Kingdom be asked to let Northern Ireland be removed from full UK membership as part of Brexit negotiations?

Under Article 158 of this Draft Withdrawal Agreement, a 'committee on issues related to the island of Ireland' would be established and would be co-chaired by representatives of the EU and the UK.

This committee 'may draw up draft decisions and recommendations' and refer them for adoption by a joint committee which would be responsible for the implementation, application and interpretation of the Agreement.

Did we really get rid of the Anglo-Irish Agreement just to see some form of Anglo-Brussels Agreement replace it?

How would this body oversee the work of the North-South Ministerial Council or North-South Implementation bodies?

How would it affect the workings and democratic decisions of elected Northern Ireland politicians, when devolution returns?

Both the EU and the Irish Government are playing a very dangerous game over Northern Ireland.

It is absolutely clear that Leo Varadkar, supported by Michel Barnier, Guy Verhofstadt and unelected officials in the EU are seeking to exploit Brexit in pursuit of Irish unity and breach the Belfast Agreement in the process.

We must be very clear. Those who voted to remain in the EU didn't vote to leave the UK, and those who voted to leave the EU didn't vote to leave the UK either.

Robin Swann is leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

Stephen Farry: Northern Ireland can become UK bridge to the EU

The emerging controversy around the EU's draft Withdrawal Agreement brings to a head the contradictions and fallacies that exist in the UK Government's position, or rather lack of a clear policy around Brexit.

In essence, all that has happened is the translation into draft legal text of the Joint Report agreed to by the EU and the UK Government in December 2017. Everyone should be clear around the risks and consequences of stark choices being made around our economy and associated political implications.

Northern Ireland is uniquely vulnerable to Brexit. Our society only works on the basis of sharing and interdependence. Yet, any hard Brexit would bring about new divisions, barriers and frictions.

The UK Government seems to have three contradictory objectives.

First, they are committed to no hard border on the island of Ireland. Second, they seem determined to take the whole UK out of both the Customs Union and Single Market. And third, they are opposed to any special measures in Northern Ireland around these mechanisms.

Only two of these can be realised. This draft agreement essentially provides backstop insurance guarantees around avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.

But it is far better for a different approach to be taken and negotiated with Brussels.

Therefore, this text should drive the government towards an outcome that sees the UK as a whole remaining in the Customs Union and Single Market. This would go a long way to avoiding a hard border, and also reduces damage to the UK economy while delivering upon the preference of the leading voices of business and industry.

Anything short of a Customs Union will involve some degree of checks on goods and friction. Even the most ambitious free trade agreement that aligns tariff schedules may avoid any economic distortions but will still involve some non-tariff barriers. Failing that, we need to consider Northern Ireland-specific solutions.

Short of Brexit itself being reversed, our priorities are to ensure current and future economic relationships both east-west and north-south are supported, and protecting the Good Friday Agreement with its complex layers of relationships. Importantly, any special measures should be understood as being purely economic in nature and entirely consistent with the principle of consent.

Ultimately, it is only full ongoing participation in the Single Market which will comprehensively protect the Good Friday Agreement, and allow Northern Ireland to grow through developing new economic opportunities.

If done right, Northern Ireland has the prospect of being a bridge between the rest of the UK and the EU.

Stephen Farry is deputy leader of the Alliance Party

Colum Eastwood: May has provided no detail on border plan

We have all been listening to the bluster and the chest thumping by the Brexiteers.

But while there has been a lot of noise, there have been few answers.

The European Union's draft withdrawal agreement sought to provide clarity and a way forward.

The EU's cast iron commitment to protecting the Good Friday Agreement and preventing a border in Ireland was reflected in the draft legal text.

This is most welcome.

Despite the outrage we have heard on the airwaves over the past number of hours from some, there is nothing surprising in this draft withdrawal agreement.

It is essentially a fleshing out of one of the options that was agreed by the United Kingdom and the EU in December.

However, what is surprising is that despite having agreed to this 'backstop' in December, the Prime Minister immediately reacted to trash the text from the EU saying that she could not agree to it.

Fine, so be it.

But the Prime Minister cannot hide from the fact that she made a political agreement a number of months ago to protect the Good Friday Agreement and prevent a hard border in Ireland.

If she is rejecting the EU's solution, then it's time for Mrs May and her Government to produce the detail on how the British Government will stop a hard border in Ireland.

We are all waiting.

There is now a clear choice - either Theresa May produces the detail on how she will prevent a hard border in Ireland, or accept the EU's proposal on the common regulatory area.

For our part, the SDLP has long argued that the way forward is for alignment with the customs union and the single market.

That is full alignment across these islands that protects the interests of all people.

And while the Brexiteers and the DUP can continue to stomp their feet, unless they move to act in the interests of the people here they will remain stuck.

The SDLP is crystal clear that leaving the EU without access to the customs union and the single market only leads to economic, social and political disaster.

It therefore is incumbent on all political leaders now, despite their position in the referendum, to act in the interests of our economy and our people.

The EU has sent a very clear message, if all else fails, they will not abandon our people and our economy to a Brexit that risks the Good Friday Agreement - and an Ireland with a hard border.

It's time for those stomping to stop making noise and start listening.

Colum Eastwood is leader of the SDLP

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