DUP leader focuses on backstop concerns in talks with EU negotiator
Europe needs to hear and understand unionist concerns about the Northern Ireland backstop, Arlene Foster has said.
In a meeting in Brussels, the Democratic Unionist leader told EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier that unionists in the region opposed the Withdrawal Agreement because of the contentious mechanism.
Afterwards, she warned that the UK and EU would move “inexorably towards a no-deal scenario” if changes to the backstop were not made.
Mrs Foster contends that the EU has ignored the feelings of unionists on the issue, and has instead been influenced by the pro-backstop lobbying of Irish nationalists.
Conservative MPs and fellow Brexiteers Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson accompanied Mrs Foster to the meeting with Mr Barnier on Thursday.
They are also seeking a Brexit deal that does not contain a backstop.
Afterwards, the DUP leader said: “We wanted to have the unionist voice heard so that he could hear the impact of the backstop and what it will do to the balance in Northern Ireland.
“We had good engagement around that issue today.”
Mr Duncan Smith added: “We also went on to discuss what the alternative arrangements were and what possibilities there were around the border.
“It was a pretty open and straightforward conversation. We are going to let the Government know when we get back what was said.”
Mr Paterson said that everyone agreed there should be no hard infrastructure on the Irish border. He said alternative technological arrangements were “the only show in town to resolve this issue”.
Activated if a wider EU/UK trade deal fails to materialise before the end of the Brexit implementation period, the backstop would see the UK enter into a temporary customs union with the EU – to avoid the need for customs checks on the Irish border.
It would also see Northern Ireland adhere to EU single market rules on goods – again to rule out the necessity for border regulatory checks.
The DUP believes binding Northern Ireland to single market rules would create a regulatory border between the region and the rest of the UK – a move, it argues, that would undermine the constitutional integrity of the Union.
After the Brussels talks, Mrs Foster told the Press Association that Prime Minister Theresa May should use the extra six months now available to her to reopen the issue of the backstop.
Asked whether she believed there was any prospect of the Withdrawal Agreement being changed in the period to October, Mrs Foster said: “It depends whether they want to get a deal.
“If they want to get a deal they’re going to have to deal with the backstop because the only thing that has got through Parliament with the majority is the fact of dealing with the backstop.
“And if it’s dealt with in the appropriate fashion then the Withdrawal Agreement will go through and they will have a deal.
“But if they continue on the road of ‘we are not reopening the treaty’ then we are heading inexorably towards a no-deal scenario.
“That’s something which I really regret because we want to get a deal that is good for the whole of the UK.
“Instead of this intransigence, actually what they should be using the next number of months to do is look at ways to deal with that backstop.”
Asked if she still had confidence in Mrs May after the latest Brexit extension, the DUP leader said: “As you know, the confidence and supply agreement that we signed was with the Conservative Party and whoever the leader of the party is we will work with. We believe in national stability. We want to see Brexit delivered.”
She added: “Three years since the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union we should have left by now. I hope that the Prime Minister takes the time to look at the alternative arrangements to the backstop because the backstop is a critical issue here.
“She needs to look at that again and come out here very strongly and say the backstop is the issue that must be dealt with.”
Back in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill criticised the DUP leader’s remarks. She highlighted that many unionists voted Remain in the EU referendum.
“I’m sure the irony of Arlene Foster’s comments won’t be lost on those unionists who voted on a cross-community majority basis against Brexit in the first place,” she said.
“Those people have seen their wishes ignored by the DUP ever since as they continue to pursue a reckless Brexit agenda alongside their allies on the hard right of the Tory Party, as evidenced by Arlene Foster being accompanied today by Tory MPs Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson.
“The DUP also continue to ignore the constant warnings from our business community, our agricultural sector, universities, trade unionists and many others who have all advocated the Backstop as the best way of protecting our interests from the worst impacts of Brexit.
“The DUP arrogantly dismiss the concerns of those at the coal face of the industries that will be most affected by their actions. Instead they prioritise their relationship with the Tory Party – the same party that has been responsible for over a decade of savage austerity cuts to our public services.
“The DUP should drop the pretence of defending anyone’s interests but their own because it is abundantly clear that they are now actively working against the best interests of the people and industries they claim to represent.”