Noel Whelan: DUP is still ignoring reality on Brexit’s impact

Sammy Wilson’s Westminster performance underlines how the party is now isolated

I have written here previously about how the Queen's University sociologist Katy Hayward has emerged as one of the most pertinent experts about Brexit and the Irish Border. She is one of those academics who frames her contributions to public debate in as accessible a manner as possible so as to be of greatest value to public understanding and to political decision-making. Her arguments are always evidence-based; informed as they are by her extensive research among border communities.

This week Dr Hayward deserves a special mention for her patience. Last Wednesday she spent more than two hours in Westminster giving detailed evidence to the House of Commons committee on Exiting the European Union.

The committee is chaired by Hilary Benn MP and its members include high-profile Conservative MP Jacob Rees Mogg and the DUP’s Sammy Wilson.

Wilson questioned Hayward for about 15 minutes and his approach gave an interesting insight into his party’s thinking about the relationship between the Belfast Agreement and Brexit.


The exchanges exposed the chasm between the DUP view and that of most other politicians and commentators. Indeed, as emerged subtly during the questioning of Hayward, the DUP view differs considerably even from that of the British government.

Wilson opened by asking Hayward. “Is the EU a signatory to the [Belfast] agreement?” He knew of course that it wasn’t. She answered accordingly.

Belfast Agreement

He then asked her whether in the section of the Belfast Agreement which deals with North-South co-operation there was any reference to “the importance of” or a “role for” the European Union.

Hayward pointed out that there was a reference to European Union financial support for peace initiatives in that section of the agreement. She acknowledged that there was no express reference to the EU role in North-South co-operation generally.

The DUP is actively seeking to downplay the implications of Brexit for the Belfast Agreement

Wilson’s drew on her answers to advance his view that the significance of the EU to the agreement has being overstated. He rejected what he described as “the premise being made that the European Union is so embedded in North-South co-operation that this co-operation could not continue without it [being involved]”.

Wilson was knocking down a straw man. Nobody has suggested that North-South co-operation would cease or be impossible after Northern Ireland leaves the EU. The argument, which Hayward and others have been making, is that Ireland and Britain’s mutual membership of the EU has made that cross-Border engagement easier and contributed to dramatically enhanced co-operation.

Hayward pointed out to Wilson that both the EU and the British government in their joint report last December had noted that “ the legal and policy framework of the European Union has been vital to North-South co-operation” and the joint report also talks about the “threat posed to North-South co-operation by Brexit”.

Dismissive of this

Wilson was dismissive of this. He spoke of “how foolish the UK side may have been in recognising the EU role”. He invited Hayward to accept that in areas like tourism and cross-Border health initiatives the co-operation was “government to government” and would continue to operate “whether there was Brexit or no Brexit, backstop or no backstop”.

Hayward patiently pointed out that concern had been expressed by those involved in many sectors about the possible effects of Brexit.

In the health sector, for example, concern had been expressed about disruptions that would arise regarding the use of medical devices in the two jurisdictions. And about compatible regimes for the use of drugs and the sharing of patient data .

Wilson countered by suggesting that issues like data protection and the mutual recognition of qualifications could be dealt with by the two governments on a bilateral basis.

However, Hayward pointed out that these matters were currently framed in a common European context. Dealing with them on a bilateral basis would take a lot of work and that Ireland would not be free to alter or adjusts its arrangements on many regulatory issues. It could not reach bilateral agreements with Britain that were incompatible with its position as an EU member state.

When Wilson again said the EU was not as central to cross-Border co-operation as some are suggesting. Hayward emphasised that the EU has been “the vital context in which we have had a growth in cross-Border co-operation and integration not only in Northern Ireland but also across Europe”.

To some extent it was depressing watching the exchanges. The DUP is actively seeking to downplay the implications of Brexit for the Belfast Agreement, for North-South co-operation and for Northern Ireland generally.

The only comfort is that they are now isolated in doing so and their arguments are being systematically demolished by experts like Hayward.