Brexit: British backstop commitments to north fail to reassure anybody

David Lidington claimed Stormont would have a 'veto' over new laws relating to the backstop. Picture by John Stillwell/PA Wire

BRITISH government commitments to Northern Ireland aimed at providing assurances in the event of the Brexit backstop being triggered have failed to gain the confidence of any of the Stormont parties.

The pledges spelled out in a white paper yesterday said the assembly would have a "strong role" in how the insurance policy against a hard border would operate.

But rather than Stormont having a "veto over introducing any new areas of law and policy" relating to the backstop – as claimed earlier in the day by the British prime minister's lieutenant David Lidington – MLAs in any future assembly would have a consultative role with their recommendations then considered by Westminster.

Elsewhere, the document includes a pledge that Britain will not diverge from what it termed the "small fraction" of EU rules that would continue to apply if no trade agreement is finalised by 2020 and the north remains in the single market.

"By so doing we would ensure everything possible had been done to avoid any additional preventable barriers within the UK internal market," the paper said, pointing to new legislation that would ensure "unfettered access" for goods from the north destined for Britain.

In addition to giving a future Stormont executive input into any new trading rules, three new bodies would have a role in shaping how fresh measures that reflect changes in EU regulations are implemented, the paper said.

"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," it concluded.

"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."

But if the British government proposals were designed to assuage the DUP ahead of next week's Westminster vote on Theresa May's withdrawal agreement, the exercise proved unsuccessful.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said the paper had elements that could be "improved and built upon", but he reiterated his party's opposition to the backstop in any form.

"We reject the backstop and have previously, and consistently, indicated we will not support an internationally legally binding withdrawal agreement that contains its provisions – such an international treaty supersedes and overrides any contrary domestic legal provisions," he said.

The North Belfast MP said the assembly would "not be able to override" UK international legal obligations contained in the backstop.

"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," Mr Dodds said.

Speaking from Brussels where she and her deputy Michelle O'Neill met EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald said the withdrawal agreement could not be rewritten, renegotiated or vetoed by Westminster or the assembly.

"Furthermore, no British government can unilaterally limit the role and function of the North South Ministerial Council or rewrite the Good Friday and other agreements," she said.

Ms McDonald accused Downing Street of an attempt to "placate" the DUP.

“The DUP is massively out of step with the majority opinion in the north in relation to Brexit, the withdrawal agreement and the backstop," she said.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the offer for Stormont to provide consultative advice on the backstop provisions was "nothing more than an empty veto being handed to an empty chamber" and a effort to "appease the DUP".

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann described the British government paper as "frankly insulting".

"No amount of political assurances or explanatory notes will change the fact that there are fundamental problems with the backstop and the democratic deficit it will create," he said.

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry described the measures as "spin".

"The government's proposals seem to add different layers of consultation – they primarily amount to spin but could lead to further brinkmanship, bureaucracy, delay and more spin."

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