Stormont EU 'veto' power plans published by government
Stormont would be given the power to vote on new EU rules if the border backstop comes into force after Brexit, the government has proposed.
It comes as Prime Minister Theresa May continues in her bid to win over MPs opposed to her Brexit deal.
MPs are set to debate the withdrawal agreement ahead of a crucial vote in the House of Commons next week.
Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington said the plans amounted to giving the Northern Ireland Assembly a “veto”.
The Democratic Unionist Party, who Mrs May relies on for her Commons majority, described the proposals as “meaningless” and of “no real significance”.
Sinn Féin said it was opposed to any Stormont “veto” mechanism.
Northern Ireland has been without a functioning devolved government since the executive collapsed in January 2017.
What is the government proposing?
The backstop is a position of last resort to maintain a soft border on the island of Ireland.
It would involve Northern Ireland staying in large parts of the EU single market, unless and until a long-term deal emerged that kept the border as open as it is now.
The proposals, published on Wednesday, set out a number of roles for the assembly.
- A “strong role” before the backstop would come into effect – the assembly would have to be consulted, with its views brought before Parliament ahead of a vote at Westminster
- Approving any new single market regulations introduced by the EU – updates to existing rules would automatically apply
- No divergence in rules applied in Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
However, there is debate as to whether the proposals amount to an outright veto.
Analysis: United in opposition
By Chris Page, BBC News Ireland Correspondent
Northern Ireland’s two largest parties fundamentally disagree on Brexit – the DUP support it, while Sinn Féin are strongly opposed.
But both parties are dismissive of the government’s ideas on involving Stormont in decisions on EU trade rules.
Sinn Féin are mindful that the devolved assembly’s cross-community voting rules – which mean a majority of unionists and nationalists must agree on contentious proposals in order for them to pass – would mean that the DUP (and other unionists) could block backstop-related measures even if there is a numerical majority in favour of them.
However, the DUP are rejecting the government’s plans because they don’t believe the proposals go far enough to protect the unionist position – they say Stormont would be consulted on EU trade issues, but not have a legally-binding veto.
How have Northern Ireland’s parties reacted?
DUP MP Gavin Robinson said he did not think the proposals would lead to his party backing the withdrawal agreement.
“The withdrawal agreement says that even if there was disagreement in Stormont, even if Stormont decided that a proposal from the European Union wasn’t in the best interests of Northern Ireland, the UK government would legislate over our heads,” the Belfast East MP told BBC News NI.
“So in giving a consultative role, it doesn’t sound to me that the proposal that will be outlined is going to be the sort of comfort that people were seeking.”
“Anything that gives the DUP or extreme unionism any veto on progress in this society will be totally unacceptable,” Sinn Féin’s John O’Dowd said.
Mr O’Dowd added that the backstop was “as good as it gets.”
“I’m of the view that there are elements of the DUP who now want a no deal, who would be perfectly happy with all that a no deal brings with it and have linked themselves to the extreme right wing of the Tory party,” he said.
Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann described the document as “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.
Haven’t we been here before?
In October 2018 it was reported that the British government would contain some kind of role for assembly members over what kind of backstop would emerge if there was a no-deal Brexit.
Sinn Féin and the SDLP rejected the suggestions at the time.
When the backstop was first agreed in December 2017 the joint statement from the UK and EU said if there was no agreement on how to prevent a hard border, then there would be no new regulatory barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK unless the assembly agreed that Northern Ireland needed “distinct arrangements”.
Why have the proposals come forward now?
A vote on the draft withdrawal agreement is scheduled to take place in the House of Commons on Tuesday, after the original vote was cancelled on 11 December.
Mrs May relies on the support of the DUP’s 10 MPs and it is highly unlikely the withdrawal agreement will be approved by Parliament if they vote against it.
The DUP has repeatedly said it is opposed to the backstop and the withdrawal agreement is worse than a no-deal Brexit.
Mrs May has been seeking extra written assurances from European leaders to try and gain the support of the DUP and many Conservative MPs who oppose her deal.
Source: BBC News – Northern Ireland