Belfast Telegraph

Lord Empey: No excuses for Foster’s failure to prevent May forging ahead with backstop

Michel Barnier with the withdrawal agreement
Michel Barnier with the withdrawal agreement
Arlene Foster

By Lord Empey

After two failed attempts in Parliament to reach a consensus on an alternative way forward to the Prime Minister's withdrawal agreement, all the major parties find themselves divided.

We know about the public divisions in the Conservative and Labour parties, but now the divisions in the ranks of the Liberal Democrats have widened as well, with long-serving Liberal Democrat MP Norman Lamb stating that he is "considering his position".

Why is it that we, as a United Kingdom, find ourselves in this position?

Parliament passed legislation to provide for a referendum on membership of the European Union, and when that resulted in a decision to leave, instead of rallying round the decision and presenting a united front to Brussels, a fifth column emerged, across the major parties and beyond, determined to thwart and eventually reverse the decision.

This group was aided and abetted by the most incompetent negotiation ever undertaken by any UK government in living memory and well beyond.

Who would agree to pay £39bn to the EU without knowing what the future trading relationship was going to be?

The same applies to the Irish border question as it is directly linked to trade.

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However, as things limped on, the seeds of the current crisis were sown when in December 2017 the joint report from the EU and UK negotiators was published.

It was clear to all who had a grasp of the negotiations that the backstop proposed in that report was going to radically change the integrity of the United Kingdom and create a schism in the UK, with a border up the Irish Sea, and leave the UK unable to get out of the backstop without the consent of the remaining 27 nations of the EU.

On December 7, 2017, the Ulster Unionist Party wrote to the Prime Minister, setting out our concerns, especially on regulatory alignment.

By contrast, on December 8, 2017, DUP leader Arlene Foster (above) issued a statement saying categorically that there would be no regulatory separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

The current backstop could lead to regulatory divergence over time. Arlene's interpretation was clearly wrong.

Despite the publication of a draft withdrawal agreement on March 19, 2018, where it was clear what the backstop meant beyond any doubt, no concerted action was taken by DUP MPs to prevent the backstop getting into the final agreement, which was then endorsed by the EU and the UK and published on November 14, 2018.

Not one comma of that agreement has been changed since then. Given that alarm bells were ringing and the EU had spelled out in black and white what its intentions were, I cannot understand how the DUP could not have grasped the significance of what was about to happen, especially as the Irish government made no secret of its intentions.

The fact is that Dublin played the green card and Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney were happy to do so.

Maybe now they realise that they overplayed their hand, but that does not excuse the DUP for culpability in failing to prevent Theresa May's government - which they support - from forging ahead with the backstop contained in the withdrawal agreement.

The solution we need to move forward is an agreement with the EU that mitigates against the negative effects of the backstop, thus avoiding a no-deal scenario, which would be so harmful to Northern Ireland.

I believe that there could be a majority formed in Parliament around sensible and fair proposals which recognise the importance of defending the EU's single market but with the UK being able to remain an independent nation, not at the mercy of 27 other nations.

Could anybody imagine President Trump or President Macron signing up to a similar backstop on behalf of their countries? The immediate task will be to stimulate debate in the next few days on a way to overcome the negative effects of the backstop, and the Ulster Unionist Party stands ready to participate constructively.

This does not, however, explain why or exonerate the DUP from their inactivity during a year when their so-called Parliamentary influence could have been used to convince the Prime Minister not to agree to the backstop.

We were frequently told by the DUP that they had great influence. On November 25, 2017, Nigel Dodds said, "Today, it is the DUP that stands in the heart of government, not in Northern Ireland, but across the United Kingdom", so I cannot understand how they failed to spot the dangers which have led us to the present impasse, put our farmers and businesses through a nightmare and now sees Northern Ireland more divided than ever.

The Prime Minister is now, at last, reaching out to other parties to help the country avoid a no-deal Brexit, participating in European elections or a prolonged extension of Article 50.

All of us must step forward with proposals to ensure that the UK can succeed and deliver on the 2016 referendum result in a responsible and orderly fashion.

Lord Empey is a former leader of the Ulster Unionists and former acting First Minister of Northern Ireland

Belfast Telegraph


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