North to get ‘veto’ if backstop triggered, UK minister says
DUP denounces move by British government as ‘cosmetic and meaningless’
The DUP’s leader at Westminster Nigel Dodds has dismissed as “cosmetic and meaningless” a British government commitment to give the Northern Ireland Assembly a role in determining how the backstop will work after Brexit.
In a 13-page policy paper published on Wednesday, the government set out a number of unilateral commitments aimed at reassuring unionists about the backstop.
It promised to ensure there would be no divergence in practice on regulations between Great Britain and Northern Ireland if the backstop came into force. British ministers would be required to seek the Assembly’s agreement before consenting to new areas of regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the EU.
“The addition of new areas of Northern Ireland specific alignment subsequent to the backstop coming into force is clearly significant and, the Government believes, necessitates oversight from the democratically elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland,” the paper said.
“We will therefore legislate in domestic law to ensure that a UK Minister will be required to seek agreement of the Northern Ireland Assembly before reaching any agreement in the UK- EU Joint Committee to add additional alignment provisions to the scope of the Protocol.”
The British cabinet office minister David Lidington said the proposal amounted to giving the Northern Assembly “a veto over introducing any new areas of law and policy” into the backstop.
But Mr Dodds said an international treaty such as the EU withdrawal agreement would override any domestic legislation introduced at Westminster. He said the government’s commitment fell short of a veto for the Assembly on new regulatory alignment promised in paragraph 50 of the December 2017 joint report between Britain and the EU.
“The Assembly would not be able to override UK international legal obligations as the backstop provisions would be in the treaty. The Government’s assurances do not faithfully implement what was agreed and included in paragraph 50 of the Joint Report in December 2017. In that paragraph, the Assembly was to decide whether specific arrangements were required. Consultation cannot replace the Assembly determining these matters,” Mr Dodds said.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar - speaking on a visit to Ethiopia on Wednesday - said he had yet to study the British government policy paper but “they did indicate to us some weeks or months ago that they may make some unilateral commitments to Northern Ireland that would not contravene the withdrawal agreement”.
Stressing the need to retain the model of a Northern Executive that operated on the basis of cross-community consent, Mr Varadkar said: “The existing Irish protocol does provide for an input by the Northern Ireland Assembly already but I don’t think we could have a situation whereby the Northern Ireland Executive or Assembly had a veto power because that would essentially give one of the two communities a veto power over the other, and that would create a difficulty.”
Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann said the British government proposals were “frankly insulting”, adding “the only way to address our concerns about the backstop will be to seek changes to the legal text”.
SDLP Brexit spokeswoman Claire Hanna described the paper as an exercise in “unconstructive ambiguity”. It was imperative Northern Secretary Karen Bradley “kick starts a talks process to resume powersharing as a matter of urgency,” she added.
Separately, the British government said on Wednesday that it would accept a backbench amendment that would appear to give MPs at Westminster a veto over the introduction of the backstop. The amendment would require the government to report to Parliament in March 2020 on the progress of negotiations towards a trade agreement that would avoid the introduction of the backstop.
It requires “parliamentary approval of the commencement of the powers implementing the Northern Ireland backstop”. And it obliges the government to have agreed a new trade deal a year after the introduction of the backstop.
Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay acknowledged that the government’s unilateral commitments on the backstop would not be enough to reassure critics of Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
“I recognise that that alone will not be sufficient for all of the concerns that colleagues may have, but I think it is a welcome step forward,” he said.
The prime minister said on Wednesday that MPs would be able to study fresh assurances from the EU about the temporary nature of the backstop before they vote on her Brexit deal next Tuesday.