DUP's Wilson 'happy' to vote down May's Brexit deal
Backstop must be scrapped for DUP MPs to support May, MP says
Sammy Wilson, DUP MP in his constituency office in Larne, Co Antrim: “For 40 years the IRA tried to separate us from the rest of UK but failed. In my opinion this agreement would separate us from the rest of the UK.”. Photograph: Liam McBurney for The Irish Times
“If it [the backstop] is so temporary, why has so much effort gone into not only negotiating the backstop but making sure that every possible means of escaping it or watering it down has been closed off? It seems to me to be a permanent arrangement.” Photograph: Liam McBurney for The Irish Times
After the 90-minute interview with Gerry Moriarty, Sammy Wilson is saddling up his 650CC BMW Scooter to catch the ferry to Scotland and motorbike more than 400 miles down to London for Tuesday’s vote. Photograph: Liam McBurney for The Irish Times
After this 90-minute interview, which took place on Friday, the DUP MP has more business in his East Antrim constituency and then he is saddling up his 650CC BMW motorbike to catch the Saturday ferry to Scotland and ride more than 600km down to London.
“I will be in London on Saturday night getting rest for the battle next week, and making sure I walk through the No lobby on Tuesday evening, and I will be very happy to do so.”
Wilson is 65 but is in good shape and with his ruddy boyish face looks much younger. He has been around a long time. Along with the Edward Carson, Ian Paisley and “Ulster Says No” posters in his office there is a simple one of a union flag with the slogan, “Ulster is British”.
“We paid a midnight visit to Leinster House to present that poster to Charlie Haughey, ” says Wilson, recalling how, back in the 1980s he, Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson and Jim Allister, who was then a DUP loyalist, made a surprise late-night protest trip to Dublin.
“I was given the job of locating Leinster House, but I couldn’t find the way. So I had to ask the gardaí – they were very accommodating.”
In fact it was a garda who took delivery of the poster to be handed to the then taoiseach. Wilson is not sure if Haughey ever got it.
Neither Wilson nor the DUP are giving an inch on the withdrawal agreement or the backstop. The only way the DUP’s 10 MPs would support May is if the backstop were scrapped or a tight time limit placed on it.
It didn’t wash with Wilson. “If it is so temporary, why has so much effort gone into not only negotiating the backstop but making sure that every possible means of escaping it or watering it down has been closed off? It seems to me to be a permanent arrangement.”
He equates the backstop designed to avoid a hard border as an east-west “Berlin Wall”. And while unionists have been accused of hyping up the constitutional threat of the backstop he says in fact it is Theresa May, and Dublin and Brussels and nationalism who have exaggerated the need for the arrangement.
There will be no hard border, regardless of how Brexit pans out, deal or no deal, he insists. “You do not need a backstop because you already have arrangements in place that work perfectly well,” he says.
“If you want to collect taxes you can collect taxes as you do at present, and that doesn’t involve a hard border. If you want to check for standards you can do that away from the border. If you want to have animal health checks they can be done as they are done at present.”
Despite the general anxiety and uncertainty Wilson thinks everything will work out fine. “I don’t think even the prime minister knows what is going to happen next, although I think we are heading towards a no-deal,” he says. “But I hate the term no-deal. We will finish up with a basic deal – both sides want to keep as much normality as possible until such times as they come up with a long term arrangement.”
And neither is he over-concerned about the UK crashing out of the EU and into a sphere of high World Trade Organisation tariffs that could damage Northern Ireland business, industry and agriculture – as Northern business people, industrialists and farmers have been telling him.
“There will be an incentive for the EU not to have a temper tantrum and stamp its feet and say let’s punish Britain. It is more than likely that there will be flexibility and we will continue to apply no tariffs and then work out future arrangements.”
He is confident the current withdrawal agreement will be soundly defeated on Tuesday but again intimates that if somehow it were carried that May would lose the DUP support, even if that meant a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government: “We have made it very, very clear and spelt it out to the prime minister to her face that if this deal goes through, and if the legislation is presented to the UK, we will not acquiesce in our own destruction.”
He is aware of some of the opprobrium directed at the DUP but repeats that unionist concerns are real. “For 40 years, the IRA tried to separate us from the rest of UK but failed. In my opinion this agreement would separate us from the rest of the UK. The one way of ensuring we are not pushed into a united Ireland is to knock this withdrawal agreement for six.”
He says that Dublin and nationalists do not understand unionist worries and suspicions. “In fact, they have taken some joy in stoking unionist fears,” he says, referring to how at one stage it was warned that Brexit could affect flights between the EU and the UK.
“Look at Leo Varadkar’s comments – they were stupid comments – we will stop British planes flying over the Republic. We don’t want a hard border on land but we will have a hard border up in the air. Nonsense! How do you think that went down with people in Northern Ireland?”
Wilson is furious on a number of fronts, but he is particularly angry with Varadkar’s warnings that a hard border could threaten a return to violence. He says, “What impact would those words have on some young 15-year-old in Londonderry or on the Falls in Belfast who gets a whisper in his ear, ‘Them bloody Brits are going to have you back behind a wall, and you will have watchtowers, and you won’t be able to be Irish or anything else’. Does he not realise the impact his words have?”
And he gets further into his anti-Varadkar stride: “I don’t think I am breaking any confidences but Ministers in the UK certainly don’t have any love for Leo Varadkar and the way in which they feel he has disdainfully treated Britain. And there will be consequences for that.
“I heard one commentator saying Varadkar would be a good debater in a student union but that is about his limit. He is certainly not a statesman or a taoiseach.”
Right now in Northern Ireland there is a certain sense of a quiet revolution in nationalism, particularly at middle-class level, that has been generated by the Brexit debate and especially by what many nationalists view as unionist intransigence – and also by issues such as the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal and a perceived DUP disrespect of nationalism. Moreover, there is a sense of emotional hurt at being separated from the EU, all of which is upsetting nationalism and promoting a stronger gaze towards a united Ireland.
Wilson goes along with this argument, but only up to a point. “I have no doubt that their fears have been exploited, that there are probably those who took a more relaxed attitude to living in Northern Ireland who are certainly now more agitated. That is why I would love to get this Brexit debate over so that people can actually see the reality.”
Wilson says that, after Brexit, nationalists will still have all their rights, and entitlements and allegiances honoured and respected, and that people’s Irishness will not be in any way diminished. But in the storm of the debate it is hard to get that across, he says.
“I don’t see any prospect of those people being settled at present because every day they have this daily diet of fear being sold to them. But two years down the line when people see that things are as normal as they were before, I think at that stage many of those concerns will settle down.”
Wilson says while he dishes it out he can take it, and would be a “hypocrite” if he couldn’t. He is mildly aware of some lampooning of him on social media but says people who take to Twitter and Facebook to attack him are “wasting their time”. “I am totally oblivious to what is being said and I don’t care two stuffs.”
Wilson, as has been noticed, says he believes in “robust” political discourse. “Some people don’t like it, some people think it is disrespectful, some people think it is not good for politics – but I find most people would prefer if you would speak your mind rather than couch it in (soft) language. I don’t believe in mincing my words.”
As he contemplates that long ride to London and Tuesday’s vote, a combat-primed Wilson concludes, “I took the position I did on the EU because I genuinely believe we should not be part of it; it is bad for us; we are better out of it. It was not for any political advantage or to make us different to anybody else. If 100 per cent of my constituents were to lobby me to stay in the EU I would still take the position I have taken.”