The DUP is stuck on Brexit – but opting for May’s deal could save Northern Ireland from turmoil

To avoid maximum damage, the country must push for the softest deal possible with the EU so the backstop never has to come into force 

Michael Hugh Walker
Monday 28 January 2019 13:56
We won't accept any extra checks in the Irish Sea, DUP's Arlene Foster says

It’s time for some backstop facts – brace yourselves.

Firstly, it is not a backstop if it contains a unilateral withdrawal mechanism for the UK or has a time limit.

Secondly, the backstop is the immovable foundation to any EU deal, unless we opt for the softest possible Brexit – it's the entire bottom row of the Jenga tower.

From a Northern Irish perspective, the position is clear but nuanced; it is in Northern Ireland's best interest to vote for May's deal to edge beyond the precipice of a no-deal Brexit.

The backstop is not a good outcome – but a no deal is dramatically worse.

Currently, the backstop is opposed by Labour for political expediency, opposed by hard Brexiteers in the hope that a parliamentary standstill will cause a no deal and opposed by hard Remainers in the hope that a second referendum (which I believe Remain would subsequently lose) will magically erupt out of thin air.

What is so hypocritical about the no deal advocates is that they claim to oppose May's deal due to the impact it would have on Northern Ireland via the backstop. Yet, without question or doubt, a no deal Brexit haemorrhages Northern Ireland economically more than any other Brexit outcome.

Here's a quick insight into no deal's impact on us: on WTO rules, UK dairy exports will be hit with an average of 64 per cent tariffs, plus new costs from non-tariff barriers. Consequently, Northern Ireland to the Republic of Ireland dairy exports would plummet by up to 65 per cent. The Ulster Famers Union made it clear that WTO rules would mean an "effective trade embargo" on exports of animals and animal-based products to the EU.

Refusing to accept May's deal due to the backstop is like refusing to drive a car because you have to wear a seatbelt (the Duke of Edinburgh aside). The seatbelt is there in the express hope you'll never need it – it is an insurance policy in a worst case scenario – but its mere presence cannot be an excuse to stop all onward progress.

Essentially there are only three Brexit choices open to the UK. A no-deal Brexit, a quite soft Brexit with a backstop or an incredibly soft Brexit, which will see us remain part of the EEA (the single market, with freedom of movement) – this is so soft no backstop would be necessary.

Currently, the DUP is refusing to support any of these options, which is completely untenable and an abject flight from responsibility – something it and Sinn Fein are well accustomed to, given Northern Ireland has had a government shutdown now for over two years.

The reality is the DUP must either embrace a very soft Brexit or accept a backstop failsafe. No deal is so shockingly bad it cannot be considered an option – the DUP's Brexit spokesman, Sammy Wilson, believes no deal is better than May's deal, which is so blatantly untrue it's like climate change denial – which helpfully Sammy has a track record of.

May's deal is the only decent option for Northern Ireland, and should be supported by Northern Irish MPs in the same way it is supported universally by our business and agriculture leaders.

However it should be recognised that there is indeed a solid basis for the DUP's contempt for the backstop, for a myriad of different reasons. The backstop is not a bettering of our situation; it's the sprinklers coming on in the middle of a house fire.

For instance, right now in Northern Ireland we face the greatest democratic deficit of any modern democracy in the world. To pile into this a constitutional shift, without our input, which would enable EU laws to apply directly despite this not being the case for the rest of the UK, is colossal.

The backstop would see us take EU rules even though we are no longer part of an EU member state. We would have no members of the European parliament and no representation on the EU council or the EU commission. All of the democratic aspects of the EU which I used to promote Remain in the campaign two years ago will have been stripped from us, and yet the laws would still apply.

Liam Fox hints at changes to Ireland backstop issue in Brexit deal

With Northern Ireland sandwiched between the backstop and no deal, our only option is to accept May's deal now and then fight hard over the ensuing two to three years so that the UK-EU deal is soft enough to avoid the backstop ever being engaged.

Many DUP heartlands, like my North Antrim constituency, voted strongly to leave the EU but are heavily dependent on membership economically. So the DUP is in a genuinely difficult position, and I won't pretend that their choice is easy.

However it is vital.

Northern Ireland is at an incredibly low place politically right now, and in times so tumultuous we need strong, brave, honest leadership.

Tragically, such political leadership's absence is likely to be confirmed by the DUP's voting in the coming month, and Sinn Fein's empty seats – it normally is.

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