Stormont to be given 'strong role' over Brexit backstop
The British government has pledged to give the Stormont assembly a "strong role" if the contentious Brexit border backstop proposal is ever triggered.
If a wider EU/UK trade deal fails to materialise by the end of the transition period in 2020, there would be a legally-binding commitment to "consult" with Stormont before deciding to either enter the backstop or ask for an extension.
Briitsh prime minister Theresa May als guaranteed MPs a vote on whether the controversial Brexit "backstop" is triggered if the UK fails to conclude a new trade deal with the EU by the end of next year.
The government published new proposals designed to assuage DUP concerns about the impact of the proposed "backstop" on Northern Ireland.
In a paper published today, the government outlined a series of commitments specific to the north, designed to temper concerns that the backstop would see Northern Ireland treated differently from the rest of the UK.
The pledges include:
- If a wider EU/UK trade deal fails to materialise by the end of the Brexit Implementation Period in 2020, there would be a legally-binding commitment to "consult" with Stormont before deciding to either enter the backstop or ask for an extension of the Implementation Period.
The view of the Assembly would then be presented to Parliament before MPs took a final decision on the issue.
- If the backstop does come into effect, the Stormont Assembly and Executive would be given a role in its operation, with the legislature being asked to consent to any new or amended EU laws applying to the region.
- Great Britain will not diverge from the EU rules which would apply in Northern Ireland if the backstop was triggered.
The government said those would only account for a "small fraction" of all Single Market rules.
The paper stated: "By so doing we would ensure everything possible had been done to avoid any additional preventable barriers within the UK internal market."
- A new domestic law to "underscore" that there would continue to be "unfettered access" for Northern Ireland goods entering the GB market in the backstop scenario.
The paper stated: "It is critical that the law is unequivocal in setting out that businesses in Northern Ireland would retain full access to the whole UK internal market, even in a backstop scenario. We will enshrine this protection in primary legislation."
- Politicians in Northern Ireland will have a role in influencing the government's approach to a number of joint UK/EU forums which will be established to oversee the Withdrawal Agreement.
This would see a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) agreed between the Government and any future Stormont Executive, setting out the devolved administration's role in respect of the three main bodies - the Joint Committee, the Specialised Committee on the Northern Ireland Protocol, and the Joint Consultative Working Group.
- A restatement of the government's commitment to safeguard the Good Friday Agreement, in particular its central tenet, the "principle of consent" - namely that the constitutional status of Northern Ireland can only change if a majority vote for it.
- A commitment to preserve the existing remit of North-South political structures established by the Good Friday deal, meaning their number and scope could not be altered by the outworking of the Brexit deal.
- Northern Ireland, like Scotland and Wales, will be handed greater powers post-Brexit, taking on many of the areas of responsibility that will be no longer governed by EU law.
- If a wider UK/EU trade deal is ultimately struck, the interests of Northern Ireland will be fully reflected in it.
In conclusion, the paper stated: "We are committed to ensuring that Northern Ireland's voice is heard at all stages both in any decision to bring the backstop into effect, and in its implementation should it be needed.
"The Belfast Agreement will be protected in full, with no expansion of North-South co-operation without the cross-community consent requirements set out in that agreement.
"We will continue to ensure protections for Northern Ireland businesses and will provide for an enhanced role for the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland, when they are restored, in shaping our future relationship with the EU and in ensuring that domestic law continues to reflect the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland."
DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds branded the government's commitments on Northern Ireland as "meaningless and cosmetic".
He said the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement would override any domestic law changes made by the government.
"We reject the backstop and have previously, and consistently, indicated we will not support an internationally legally binding withdrawal agreement that contains its provisions," he said.
"Such an international treaty supersedes and overrides any contrary domestic legal provisions."
He added: "The assembly would not be able to override UK international legal obligations as the backstop provisions would be in the treaty."
Mr Dodds highlighted that the EU/UK Joint Report of December 2017 contained a commitment that the Assembly would ultimately decide if specific Northern Ireland arrangements would be required.
"Consultation cannot replace the assembly determining these matters," he added.
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"Furthermore, it is clear that under these proposals providing a law for a mandatory process of consultation with the Assembly on whether to bring the backstop into effect would ultimately have no bearing on the decisions to be taken by Parliament.
"Were we to find the backstop being brought into effect then, in such circumstances there would be no exit mechanism from the backstop and consequently these series of measures outlined by the Government would not be sufficient to deal with the major and significant flaws of an internationally binding backstop arrangement."
Mr Dodds added: "For our part we believe that it is unacceptable that the UK internal market, and Northern Ireland's significant relationship as an integral part of it, would be reliant on the terms of an Act or Acts of Parliament, which could be the subject of change at any time depending on the policy views of a future United Kingdom government.
"Meanwhile, Northern Ireland would be bound by the terms of the international withdrawal treaty with no clear exit route.
"The government is aware that we will not countenance anything which places Northern Ireland's place within the internal market of the United Kingdom at risk and which creates significant new regulatory divergence risks within the UK.
"Our position on all these matters has not changed. We will continue to work to secure a better deal in the time ahead."
British prime minister Theresa May has said she is still seeking fresh assurances from the EU on the Northern Ireland backstop, intended to prevent the return of a hard border with the Republic, in a bid to win over sceptical MPs.
As MPs resume debate on Theresa May's EU Withdrawal Agreement, a close lieutenant of the British prime minister has accused critics of peddling "fantasies" about other possible Brexit deals.
David Lidington warned potential rebels that the EU will not renegotiate a "magical alternative" if they vote down Mrs May's plan in the crucial vote next Tuesday - leaving only the options of no deal or no Brexit.
Meanwhile, Labour confirmed that it will table an immediate motion of no confidence in the government if the PM's deal falls, in the hope of triggering a general election.
And opponents of a no-deal Brexit made a bid to stop Mrs May from "running down the clock" to March 29.
Speaker John Bercow agreed to allow a debate on their amendment to force her to come back to the Commons within three days - rather than 28 days under current legislation - to set out her next steps if she loses on Tuesday.
Mrs May is understood to have told Cabinet that she will respond quickly if her proposals are rejected by MPs, raising speculation that a "Plan B" could be outlined as early as the end of next week.
The PM was due to hold a drinks reception for MPs at Number 10 as she continues her desperate efforts to fend off humiliation in a vote which could determine the fate of her administration.
Confirming Labour's plans to force an early election, shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner said it now seemed to be taken for granted that the Government would be defeated in the most important piece of legislation for 50 years, which it had spent two years negotiating.
"We're now almost accepting that this will simply be defeated and voted down," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
"Obviously, the next thing to do immediately after that is for there to be a vote of confidence in the government."
Next week's historic showdown comes after the prime minister dramatically pulled a vote before Christmas, admitting she was heading for defeat in the face of opposition from both pro-Leave and pro-Remain Tories.
Mr Lidington made a last-minute plea to rebels to accept the deal drawn up over two years of negotiations with Brussels.
"I don't think that the British public are served by fantasies about magical alternative deals that are somehow going to sort of spring out of a cupboard in Brussels," said the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Mrs May's de facto deputy.
Governments of the 27 remaining EU states "are very clear, in conversations I have had with them as well as their public statements, they ain't going to be going back and unpicking this for some brand new brilliant renegotiations", he said.
"So, the choice that people have is this deal, or it is no deal, or it is, as some MPs advocate, to reverse the 2016 referendum entirely."
But there was little sign of opposition to Mrs May's deal softening, with Leave-backing former minister Andrew Mitchell confirming he would not vote for the "humiliating" agreement.
On the other side of the debate, rebel Tories have made clear they are ready to wage a parliamentary guerrilla campaign to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
Twenty Conservative MPs joined opposition parties on Tuesday in backing a cross-party amendment to the Finance Bill intended to limit the government's powers to make tax changes in the event of no-deal.
Among those inflicting the first government defeat on a Finance Bill since 1978 were former ministers Ken Clarke, Sir Michael Fallon, Justine Greening, Dominic Grieve, Sir Oliver Letwin and Sam Gyimah.
Sir Oliver, who supports Mrs May's deal, said they were ready to table similar amendments to other Brexit legislation to warn they were prepared to put paid to "this disastrous proposal".
"The majority in this House will sustain itself, and we will not allow a no-deal exit to occur on March 29," he said.
Downing Street insisted the amendment - tabled by senior Labour MP Yvette Cooper and Tory former cabinet minister Nicky Morgan - was no more than an "inconvenience" which would not prevent the government collecting taxes.
But supporters said the 303-296 vote showed there was now a clear majority of MPs who would oppose a no-deal if Mrs May cannot, as many expect, win the backing of the Commons for her agreement.
Labour said the wording of the Government motion confirmed that MPs were being asked to vote on the exact same deal on offer before Christmas.
Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said: "The delay to the meaningful vote has achieved nothing beyond wasting a month.
"If the government's deal is defeated then a general election is the best way forward to give a new government a mandate."
Labour is also coming under pressure over its position as the party's International Policy Commission meets on Wednesday to discuss Brexit.
Campaigners from the People's Vote and Labour for a People's Vote groups said more than 10,000 of their supporters, including more than 5,000 Labour members, had contacted the party's policy forum to call for it to come out firmly in favour of a second referendum.
Another campaign group, Another Europe Is Possible, said 201 constituency Labour parties were set to debate motions calling it to take a stronger line against Brexit by the end of this month.