09/01/2019

Stormont Granted 'Veto' Power On Future EU Laws

Stormont will have the power to vote on new EU rules if the border backstop is activated, the government has proposed.

A series of commitments and assurances on Northern Ireland and its place in the UK, if Brexit is to go ahead under Prime Minister Theresa May's deal, has been published.

It comes as she fights to win the support of MP's ahead of the meaningful vote next week.

The move has been met with a mixed reaction from Northern Ireland, as the business community welcome the "clarity" it provides, while the DUP brand the information as "meaningless".

Key among the commitments is a provision that would give a restored NI Assembly a say on future laws, which Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington said amounts to a "veto" on the issue.

The Democratic Unionist party, who the PM relies on for her majority in the House of Commons, described the plans as being of "no real significance".

Deputy leader Nigel Dodds said: "We recognise that the Government has been working to bring forward measures to address our long-held concerns about the backstop issue. We reject the backstop and have previously, and consistently, indicated we will not support an internationally legally binding withdrawal agreement that contains its provisions.

"The proposal to ensure 'a strong role for the Northern Ireland Assembly' before NI specific backstop provisions are given effect is cosmetic and meaningless in that as the paper itself indicates 'this would be without prejudice to our commitment to abide by our international law obligations'. The Assembly would not be able to override UK international legal obligations as the backstop provisions would be in the treaty.

"The Government's assurances do not faithfully implement what was agreed and included the Joint Report in December 2017. The Assembly was to decide whether specific arrangements were required. Consultation cannot replace the Assembly determining these matters."

Mrs May's government also pledged that there would be "no divergence in practice" between the rules covering Great Britain and Northern Ireland, if the backstop took effect.

In addition, the commitments include the protection of the Good Friday Agreement and the principle of consent, the continuation of the common travel area and the establishment of a customs union between the UK and EU.
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With regards to the lack of power-sharing in the devolved NI Executive, the paper states that the government is fully committed to its restoration "at the earliest opportunity".

It continues: "The Government remains strongly committed, though, to giving a restored Executive and Assembly a strong voice in any scenario where the backstop would be brought into force."

Meanwhile, Ulster Unionist Party Leader Robin Swann MLA branded the paper as "frankly insulting" and said the UK Government can only adequately address concerns over the backstop by changing the legal text of the Withdrawal Agreement.

"Its only purpose seems to be to state what we already know, rather than going any way towards addressing the very real concerns we have repeatedly outlined to Government ministers and officials," the north Antrim MLA commented.

"If the UK Government's key new point is that they will provide a consultation process for the Northern Ireland Assembly then I don't hold out much hope, given they don't seem to have listened to Northern Ireland parties during their current consultations.  That's before you consider that currently there are no attempts being made to restore the Executive and Assembly.  

"The only way to address our concerns about the backstop will be to seek changes to the legal text.  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."

Despite the political backlash, local businesses have welcomed the recent publication.

Aodhan Connolly of the NI Retail Consortium said in a statement: "It provides the clarity that the business community needs. It restates the commitments that the Government has given to the Northern Ireland business community and is a great starting point that will be supported by legislation to facilitate it working.

"We hope that this will go some way to assuage the concerns of the DUP and others so that we can get what we need for Northern Ireland: a Brexit deal.

"We are a mere 79 days until Brexit and we cannot sleepwalk into a no-deal scenario which would lead to higher costs that neither business nor the hard pressed Northern Ireland consumer can afford.

"In short, Northern Ireland will feel the effects of a no deal Brexit more than anywhere else in the UK. The Assembly being able to vote on any new regulatory areas is of course predicated on the Assembly being up and running and these commitments are yet another reason to stop the stalemate at Stormont."



(JG/CM)

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