Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Boris Johnson's Brexit blueprint might please DUP but is unlikely to satisfy anyone else

Jim Allister
Jim Allister

By Suzanne Breen

Boris Johnson's Brexit blueprint has brought us back onto old familiar territory in Northern Ireland. It's the DUP versus everybody else.

Unionists of all shades had stood together against the backstop. But that unity shattered with the Prime Minister's plan.

Arlene Foster welcomed it as a "serious and sensible way forward" which for the first time allowed the people of Northern Ireland a role in their future post-Brexit.

The backstop may have been binned but both the Ulster Unionists and the TUV were far from impressed with what has replaced it.

Jim Allister smelt betrayal. "The DUP's vital red line is not just blurred, it's gone," he said last night.

Northern Ireland will not be leaving the EU on the same basis as the rest of the UK it appears on first reading. It will depart the customs union but could stay in the single market.

Similar to the TUV, UUP leader Robin Swann accused the DUP of a "road to Damascus conversion" and "a very sharp U-turn".

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The Prime Minister's paper does propose an all-Ireland trade zone - covering not just agri-food but all goods.

This new regulatory zone effectively creates a trade barrier between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

So is the DUP effectively signing up to an all-Ireland economy and a border in the Irish Sea?

There is a key detail which makes the Brexit plan palatable to the DUP and anathema to nationalists in Northern Ireland. Consent from Stormont is mandatory. The Assembly would have to sign off on the proposals by July 2020 - six months before the transition period ends.

The requirement for parallel consent at Stormont means that 40% nationalist and 40% unionist support will be needed in the chamber.

If devolution is suspended - as it has been for almost 1,000 days - or if Stormont fails to agree, then the default position is that Northern Ireland remains aligned to UK and not EU rules. The DUP effectively has a veto.

The party's deputy leader and barrister Nigel Dodds was actively involved in the discussions around the drafting of the UK paper. And the DUP insists that arch Brexiteer MP Sammy Wilson is fully on board with the plan.

"This is totally different from the backstop which was imposed on Northern Ireland," a senior party figure said.

"With the backstop, it was entirely up to the EU whether we ever got out.

"Under this proposal, we make a decision from day one about what we will opt into. And Stormont can decide to opt out after four years.

"It puts us in control and lets us pick and choose rather than having something forced upon us indefinitely."

Sinn Fein's absolute rejection of the plan is entirely understandable because what London is giving with one hand, it's taking away with the other.

Party vice-president Michelle O'Neill said: "The British Government is offering an all-Ireland regulatory zone for all goods, yet makes these arrangements dependent on the consent of the Assembly, effectively giving the DUP a veto. This is entirely unacceptable. Sinn Fein will never concede this. The proposals go further by extending the need for such consent to the all-Ireland single electricity market, again giving a veto to the DUP on whether to keep the lights on or not."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood was equally damning when he branded the proposals "dead on arrival".

Both Brussels and Dublin were considerably more diplomatic.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar spoke on the telephone to Johnson for half an hour last night. He said while the proposals did not "fully meet the agreed objectives of the backstop", he would study them in more detail and would consult with Brussels.

Likewise, there wasn't a flat no from the EU. It said that progress had been made although problems still remained.

A big call must be made by Brussels. It will have to weigh up what's on the table against an extension of Article 50 and the gamble of an election bringing a Labour or coalition government that the EU hopes would stop Brexit.

The UUP correctly warned that Johnson's plan would mean ongoing instability and chaos in politics and business here.

"Northern Ireland would be locked into continual political debates about Brexit and alignment with the rest of the UK or EU," said Swann. "They would set the theme of every Assembly and Westminster election. It plunges Northern Ireland into a referendum in the Assembly chamber every four years."

But his prediction is unlikely to come to pass. The odds are that this proposal will sink not swim.

Belfast Telegraph


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