Sammy Wilson accuses top civil servant David Sterling of political motive on Brexit

Last week in a BBC interview, DUP MP Sammy Wilson said a backstop could be agreeable if it had a time limit. Picture by Michael McHugh, Press Association.
Aoife Moore, Press Association

DUP MP Sammy Wilson has accused Northern Ireland's top civil servant of having a political motive for warning against a no-deal Brexit.

During Westminster's Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Lady Sylvia Hermon quoted head of the Northern Ireland civil service David Sterling, who warned of grave, profound and long-lasting consequences of a no deal on Northern Ireland in a letter on Tuesday.

Inability to prepare, EU tariffs and significant changes to exports could cause business distress, failure or the relocation of some companies to the Republic, a report from Mr Sterling said.

Mr Wilson replied: "I have no doubt this was written for a political motive."

When the letter arose in conversation again, Mr Wilson said the letter "was a scare tactic".

When Lady Hermon interrupted, an animated Mr Wilson replied: "I don't care if he's head of civil service or Santa Claus, it really doesn't matter, the fact of the matter is he's got it wrong."

A spokesman for Stormont's Executive Office said: "While it remains the UK government's intention to leave Europe with a deal, the Northern Ireland departments, given their current responsibilities, have been planning against a range of potential scenarios, including a no-deal exit.

"This approach is entirely consistent with the no-deal preparations which are ongoing across the UK.

"The correspondence from the head of the civil service is a factual, objective update on the work which the Northern Ireland departments have been doing.

"In a number of places, it repeats and/or amplifies the UK government assessment."

Mr Wilson, East Antrim MP, added he found it difficult to believe that business, retailer and farming union members in Northern Ireland, including the NI Chamber of Commerce, support the Withdrawal Agreement.

"I find that rather odd," he said.

"Let's just take the Ulster Farmers' Union – if they had read the agreement, they would actually find that state aid rules applying to Northern Ireland would mean that the EU could cap that support, in accordance with what they saw as the appropriate policy.

"As far as businesses, I do find it very difficult to understand why Northern Ireland businesses who export around the world would wish to be excluded from UK trade deals in the future."

Kate Hoey asked Mr Wilson if there is any truth that the Northern Ireland business leaders saw the Withdrawal Agreement before those in the House of Commons.

"I think that maybe they were given a precis of what was in the agreement, designed to play down bad parts of it, and emphasise the parts that would be attractive to them.

"One thing I do know is that they made their pronouncements before the 587-page document was available, they must have made it on a basis of a briefing they were given. No-one should do that, especially when one party has an interest that it's skewed in a certain way."

When asked if the DUP was willing to face the consequences of a no-deal Brexit, Mr Wilson replied: "If we finish up with a no deal, it will be a result of the intransigence of the EU.

"We have made it quite clear all along that we wish to have a deal, but they have to have a deal which has the support of people within the House of Commons.

"You can't expect the government to cave in because the alternative is no deal."

Last week in a BBC interview, Mr Wilson said a backstop could be agreeable if it had a time limit.

Clarifying his comments at the committee, he said if a time limit were introduced it may save the Withdrawal Agreement.

"The question that was asked was, would the DUP accept current withdrawal agreements, I made it clear: no we wouldn't," Mr Wilson said.

"The issue was the separate backstop arrangement for Northern Ireland, and the fact that the UK couldn't get out of those arrangements without the assent of the EU.

"The point I was making was, the backstop could be removed if they didn't want to have the Withdrawal Agreement totally destroyed, you could impose a time limit on the backstop."

The UK will leave the EU without a deal later this month unless MPs support the Prime Minister's deal or Britain secures an extension from the EU.

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