Arlene Foster: Deal will fall unless there is change of heart in Dublin and EU on backstop
Yesterday I hosted a meeting with the Republic of Ireland's Foreign Minister and Tanaiste Simon Coveney in Stormont. We discussed how the Irish Government and Brussels negotiators needed to have a change of heart if the United Kingdom is to reach an agreement with the European Union before March 29.
The DUP wants a sensible deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union. One that works for Northern Ireland and our nearest neighbours in the Republic of Ireland.
The current withdrawal agreement is not that deal.
Principally, it is flawed because of the backstop. An arrangement which would erect a new border in the Irish Sea between us and our main market, leave Northern Ireland taking rules from the EU without any representation in Brussels and create bureaucracy for our core industries.
We have worked hard in London, Dublin and Brussels to explain why is it utterly unacceptable to unionists to have a new border erected between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
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I am a unionist for historical, cultural and social reasons, but also because Northern Ireland's economic future is best placed as part of the fifth largest economy in the world. The backstop fundamentally undermines Northern Ireland's place in the United Kingdom. That runs roughshod over the Belfast Agreement and the principle of consent.
For Northern Ireland to be considered by the rest of the United Kingdom as a 'third country' for goods is astounding and offensive to unionists.
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At the 2017 general election Northern Ireland unionists of all shades united behind the DUP to send 10 MPs to Westminster and stand up for the Union. We have been doing that and will continue to do it. That mandate must be respected.
From the beginning of the negotiations we set one red line for the Government - that there could be no new border in the Irish Sea thus undermining the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom. The current withdrawal agreement breaches that red line.
The Prime Minister has committed to securing legally binding changes to deal with our concerns. We will be holding her to those promises, but there seems to be little movement in Brussels. A change of heart is required in Dublin and Brussels.
What the Government published on Wednesday by way of 'reassurances' were cosmetic and meaningless. The withdrawal agreement is an international, legally binding treaty and as such will always supersede domestic legislation. The changes need to be made in Brussels.
The Irish Government will of course stand up for the interests of the Republic. That's natural. However, they shouldn't dress up their defence of the backstop as some act of charity towards Northern Ireland. The backstop is in the Republic of Ireland's interests and theirs alone.
However, as the possibility of a no-deal exit grows, it is increasingly in Dublin's interests to encourage the other EU states to heed our concerns if they are to secure a mutually beneficial deal.
Repeated Irish Government spokespersons have said that the backstop respects the Belfast Agreement and gives Northern Ireland the "best of both worlds". That's patent nonsense.
The backstop is heralded by republicans because it annexes Northern Ireland away from the rest of the United Kingdom. Indeed, those who claim it to be the "best of both worlds" fail to explain how a one-way turnstile from NI-GB is a good deal. The "best of both worlds" would be unfettered north-south and east-west access. That is not what is on offer.
As the House of Commons debates the withdrawal agreement, it is abundantly clear that the backstop is the problem. Indeed, with the backstop removed, despite other concerns, the withdrawal agreement would command much greater support in Parliament.
I am very aware of concerns amongst business leaders who long for certainty. We want to make progress towards a better deal, but to do so will require the Irish Government to raise its voice in Brussels. Common sense needs to be applied. The notion of a hard border is nothing more than a bogeyman.
Our focus is on getting a deal which protects the integrity of the United Kingdom market and upholds the precious Union between NI and Great Britain.