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Nigel Dodds: Prime Minister must bin the backstop and work for a better deal

Attorney General Geoffrey Cox reacts to the vote that forced the Government to publish his legal advice
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox reacts to the vote that forced the Government to publish his legal advice

By Nigel Dodds

December is the month associated with gifts, and it is clear from the Attorney General's legal advice that the Prime Minister is prepared to gift our sovereignty to Brussels. Rather than taking back control, under the Prime Minister's Withdrawal Agreement, the United Kingdom would be trapped.

The Northern Ireland Protocol, set in international law, could not be exited unilaterally by the United Kingdom.

It would continue indefinitely until superseded by another agreement.

The Attorney General's legal opinion is a devastating blow for the Prime Minister and those Cabinet ministers who are trying to sell the Withdrawal Agreement as a good deal.

The publication of the legal opinion is a clear vindication for those of us who campaigned for it to be published.

It is regrettable that we needed to use the Contempt mechanism to secure its publication. It did not need to be this way.

Nonetheless, we now fully understand why the Government did not want to publish the Attorney General's legal opinion.

It flies in the face of what the Prime Minister told us on February 28 in the House of Commons.

She said: "The draft legal text that the Commission has published would, if implemented, undermine the UK common market and threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK by creating a customs and regulatory border down the Irish sea, and no UK Prime Minister could ever agree to it.

"I will be making it crystal clear to President Juncker and others that we will never do so."

Yet the Attorney General's advice to the Cabinet confirms that the Northern Ireland Protocol would mean very different trading arrangements for Northern Ireland than the rest of the United Kingdom.

A customs and regulatory border is precisely what the Government now propose.

The Prime Minister's public and private commitments lie in tatters.

Of course, it is important to rewind 12 months. It was this week last year when Arlene Foster telephoned the Prime Minister while she was in Brussels and urged her to bin the backstop.

We pointed out the folly of the arrangement. We insisted on Paragraph 50 being added to the Joint Report to safeguard frictionless trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Twelve months later, the Withdrawal Agreement has hundreds of detailed legal clauses about the Northern Ireland situation and the backstop, but there is not a single line and not a single word in relation to paragraph 50 of the Joint Report.

That provision was inserted specifically to allow that the final say in and decision on any regulatory differences between Great Britain and Northern Ireland should rest with the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.

It is deeply regretful that we have received no satisfactory explanation as to why Paragraph 50's commitment has been deleted.

Conceding a fallback position to the EU before even starting talks about our final exit arrangements was always a bad idea.

Too much time has been spent on negotiating this awful backstop. Even the ministers selling the deal don't like it.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Rt Hon Philip Hammond MP, said on ITV's Peston on November 21: "I don't think this backstop is a good arrangement for our economy. I don't think it is a good arrangement for our Union."

So, it's bad for the economy and the Union.

And then the Attorney General, the Rt Hon Geoffrey Cox MP, said in the House of Commons on December 2: "It has unattractive and unsatisfactory elements for us. I would have preferred to have seen a unilateral right of termination in the backstop. I would have preferred to have seen a clause that allowed us to exit."

The words of the Prime Minister, EU commissioners and Cabinet ministers will come and go.

They can be twisted and contorted to mean whatever one wants them to mean, but the legally binding text of the Withdrawal Agreement will remain.

Our grandchildren will live with the outworkings of that international agreement.

The Withdrawal Agreement will commit Northern Ireland to large swaths of EU single market rules for goods and agri-food.

Of course, there are already regulatory differences between GB and NI, but those were set for health reasons by our Parliament or NI Assembly, not because we were in a different single market regime.

In such circumstances, our core industries would have their rules set by the European Commission and be subject to the European Court of Justice, yet we would have no say over them.

It is utterly unacceptable, to me as a unionist, that Northern Ireland, in trade terms, would treat the rest of the United Kingdom as a third country.

The Attorney General has confirmed this as being his legal opinion.

We were told by the Prime Minister in her six declarations to the people of Northern Ireland last December that she would ensure that Northern Ireland left the European Union with the rest of the United Kingdom.

She assured the public that no part of the United Kingdom would be left in the single market or the customs union and that no part of the UK would be left subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

These pledges have now been broken.

We want a deal which works for the entire United Kingdom and delivers on the referendum result.

We want Parliament to be sovereign for the entire United Kingdom.

Rather than go through the process of debating and voting on this flawed deal, the Prime Minister should work for a better deal and bin the backstop.

Nigel Dodds is the DUP MP for North Belfast

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