Nationalists and unionists divided on EU draft proposal to keep the north in customs union

Michel Barnier yesterday outlined details of the EU's 'backstop' position that would see regulatory alignment across Ireland. Picture by AP Photo/Virginia Mayo
Michel Barnier yesterday outlined details of the EU's 'backstop' position that would see regulatory alignment across Ireland. Picture by AP Photo/Virginia Mayo

The European Union's proposal that all of Ireland remains a "common regulatory area" after Brexit has prompted typically contrasting reactions from Northern Ireland's parties.

The EU's draft withdrawal agreement proposes effectively keeping Northern Ireland in a customs union when the UK severs ties with Brussels.

But EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has described it as a "backstop" option that would only be become reality in the absence of an alternative agreement with the UK.

However, DUP leader Arlene Foster said the proposal was "constitutionally unacceptable" and would be "economically catastrophic for Northern Ireland."

Mrs Foster added in a tweet: "I welcome the Prime Minister's commitment that HMG will not allow any new border in the Irish Sea. Northern Ireland must have unfettered access to GB market."

DUP MEP Diane Dodds acknowledged that the text was a draft but nonetheless described it as "unacceptable" and "an act of bad faith".

She said designating the north an autonomous EU customs territory would "break up the union and disadvantage our citizens".

"It is an aggressive proposal which proves that Brussels is only serious about the parts of the Belfast Agreement that suits its agenda– the principle of consent would be left in tatters," she said.

Mrs Dodds claimed the text put responsibility for finding a solution to the border issue on the British government and that it "rolls back on pledges" made in December's UK-EU joint report.

Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill criticised the response of British prime minister and the DUP.

She said "objective analysis" showed that leaving the customs union was incompatible with avoiding a hard border.

The Mid Ulster MLA said the EU had presented "practical solutions as to how a new frontier can be avoided".

"They have done so in the absence of any workable British government proposals – all we have had from Theresa May is empty platitudes about not wanting a border and, frankly, that isn’t good enough," she said.

SDLP Brexit spokeswoman Claire Hanna said it was time for "calm heads and hard choices".

She welcomed the EU's "cast iron commitment to protecting the Good Friday Agreement and preventing a border in Ireland".

"Despite some utterances on the airwaves from some, there is nothing surprising in this draft withdrawal agreement today – this is essentially what was agreed by the UK and the EU in December," the South Belfast MLA said.

But Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson warned that the EU's "backstop" position would have “devastating implications for the constitutional integrity” of the UK.

He said the north would be forced to accept laws without democratic input and welcomed Theresa May's rejection of the proposals.

Mr Nicholson said the text was a "departure" from what was agreed in December.

"These proposals are tantamount to annexing Northern Ireland economically and politically away from the rest of the United Kingdom," he said.

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry restated his party's desire for the UK as a whole to remain within a customs union with the EU.

"Short of Brexit itself being reversed, Alliance’s priorities are to ensure current and future economic relationships both east-west and north-south are supported, protect the Good Friday Agreement and avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland," he said.

He said any special measures should be seen as "purely economic in nature and entirely consistent with the principle of consent".

Meanwhile, Leo Varadkar has met some of the signatories to a letter from 'civic nationalism', which in December called on the taoiseach to protect the interests of Irish citizens in the north.

Solicitor Niall Murphy, Irish News columnist Brian Feeney and All-Ireland winning Tyrone captain Peter Canavan were among those who travelled to Dublin for Tuesday night's meeting with the Fine Gael leader.