At this late stage of the game, the DUP are furious that Theresa May is still defending the backstop when it appears it may not be so vital after all. This new last minute dispute goes to the heart of why the DUP is still refusing to back her deal and is complicating the search for a Brexit agreement and with it Mrs May’s prospects for remaining in office. Just to add to the complications she went to say that in the event of No Deal, “some direct application of powers” would be needed in Northern Ireland.
In the latest twist in the Brexit entanglements it was the Prime Minister in the Commons who pointed out that only today the EU had confirmed it would be “required to immediately apply its rules and tariffs at its borders with the UK… and include.. checks and controls for customs, sanitary and phytosanitary standards and verification of compliance with EU norms.”
No special arrangements for Ireland were mentioned.
In Dublin it was the taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s spokesman that the Irish government wasn’t preparing for a hard border on the island of Ireland post-Brexit and Ireland and the EU were at one on the matter.
Well maybe. But the EU and the Taoiseach were making different predictions.
Earlier, Leo Varadkar said he was still confident and believed there would be a deal on Brexit.. However, European Union officials in Brussels have said a no-deal Brexit is “becoming increasingly likely”.
The Prime minister dropped a small bombshell when she stated that in the event of No Deal “some direct application of powers” would be needed in Northern Ireland. In her statement she offered a new reason we hadn’t heard before for asking the EU for an extension to Article 50
I am conscious of my duties as Prime Minister to all parts of our United Kingdom and of the damage to that Union that leaving without a deal could do when one part of it is without devolved government and unable, therefore, to prepare properly.
The former hard Brexiteer secretary of state Owen Paterson pricked up his ears
It is a bit surprising to hear from the Prime Minister that Northern Ireland is “unable” to “prepare properly” because it does not have devolved government. Which areas of Government activity present a problem, and when will they be resolved?
The Prime Minister
The Northern Ireland civil service does not have the powers to take the decisions that would be needed if the UK left the European Union with no deal. It is possible to address those issues, but had that not been done by 29 March, the question about the impact on Northern Ireland, where there is no devolved government, would be an important one. It is absolutely right that the Government took the view that it was not appropriate to allow no deal to go ahead at a time when the powers were not in place to ensure proper exercise of the decision making necessary in a no-deal situation.
Nigel Dodds rose straight away, in anger
On that last point, the Prime Minister and the House have known for some considerable time that 29 March was the target date, so why have appropriate preparations not been made? Why do we need another two weeks? What will happen in another two weeks that could not have happened up to now? This is a fundamental lack of preparation, and the Government are entirely responsible for that if it is the case. This is an entirely new argument that we are hearing for the first time about why we need an extension.
t (Theresa Villiers)—who has great experience, having served for four years in Northern Ireland—has pointed out that Leo Varadkar has made it clear that, in terms of no deal, he is very confident that there will be no border checks. [Interruption.] The Prime Minister shakes her head, but that is what he said. Michel Barnier and Angela Merkel have said the same. The reality is that this backstop problem has been elevated. I would like the Prime Minister’s views on this: why does the EU insist on it when, in the case of no deal, there do not need to be any checks? Why did the Prime Minister ever agree to this backstop in the first place when it is the thing that bedevils her agreement?
The Prime Minister
Today is not the first time that the position of Governments about Northern Ireland in a no-deal situation has been raised. It was raised by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the debate on no deal, which took place nearly two weeks ago. I simply say to the right hon. Gentleman that a number of statements are made and have been made by individuals about the situation in relation to the border in Northern Ireland. We ourselves have said that we would ensure that we were moving towards a period of time—because of the legal situation it could only be for a temporary period—of minimal checks with exceptions, but the legal position is different given the necessity to be able to have certain checks taking place. The European Union has been clear that EU law would need to be applied in all of these circumstances..
Vicky Ford (Chelmsford) (Con) (Northern Ireland born)
Is the Prime Minister suggesting that in order for Northern Ireland to be ready to leave with no deal, there would need to be some form of direct decision making by us in this House in the absence of a Stormont Government?
The Prime Minister
Yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. If there is no Stormont Government and if powers and ministerial direction, which are not currently available to the civil servants, are needed, that would require some form of direct application of powers from Westminster.
This was a new argument from Mrs May What a time to raise it ! It was as if she wanted to blame the smaller target than the awkward squad in her own party, the ERG It seemed to come fresh to Nigel Dodds too. He seemed incensed, as if he’d never heard it before. His reaction was surprising as he spent many hours negotiating with ministers and officials over the deal. He was also now asking: was the government exaggerating the border problem because they hadn’t properly prepared for a No Deal? A couple of hours earlier, Arlene Foster had refused Mrs May’s last minute personal appeal to support her deal.
From the prime minister the further suggestion of a form of direct rule in the event of No Deal sounded as if she went further than she meant to. Did she think that if her deal finally passes, the prospect of a consultation role for the Assembly would act as a magnet to bring flocking back?
These exchanges expose a far greater gap in understanding between Mrs May and the DUP than I believed possible. After nearly two years of a relationship she doesn’t seem to know much about what makes them tick- a pretty poor comment on her skills as a negotiator. The DUP seem further away from supporting her than ever. They’ve taken understandable offence at her clumsy attempt to make the Northern Ireland situation take the hit for having to extend Article 50.
Cracks also appeared between the EU and Dublin. The Irish Government wants no border checks, but EU will insist the single market is protected, as the Irish Times’ Cliff Taylor reports.
In a comment today, a senior EU official said they were working with Ireland to minimise the intrusiveness of any checks, to avoid physical infrastructure at the Border itself and to conduct checks if and where possible away from the actual Border.
But the point is that Dublin has been trying to avoid any checks whatsoever – the whole point of the backstop strategy. Even in the case of a no-deal Brexit, Dublin says talks now underway are on how to avoid a hard Border. The Irish plan would be to push for some arrangement which operated in a similar way to the backstop after a no-deal Brexit, but whether this might be possible – or by when – is unclear.
It is clear that the EU is insisting that a way must be found to perform these checks – somewhere – and protect the EU single market, particularly in crunch areas like food and product safety.
For Brussels and the big member states, this is non-negotiable as a concept, even if the how and where can be discussed. Were we to refuse, the risk would be of checks being carried out when goods cross from Ireland to the Continental EU markets , freedom of access to which is central to our attraction to foreign direct investment as well as to the exports of many Irish businesses.
The problem for the Irish Government is that a central part of its Brexit strategy has been to ensure that no checks whatsoever were needed at or near the Irish Border. Hence the backstop agreement, the guarantee that there would be no need for a border by having the same customs and regulatory regimes North and South. The backstop guarantees this, even if future trade talks between the EU and UK do not succeed in doing so. But in a no-deal exit, this is all off the table.
Ireland’s stance, so far, is that in the event of a no-deal it needs to hold talks urgently with the UK and EU to avoid a hard Border. But here we come back to the question – what does a hard Border actually mean? Dublin will argue that something like the backstop should remain in place, with the North keeping to the same regulatory regime as the Republic. However this means checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea from the UK into the North – unless the whole of the UK remains in a customs union with the EU and keeps regulations aligned.
For all the endless talk about the backstop and the border, the actual problems are still to be gripped.
Astoundingly though the DUP were looking forward to a new confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives, even as they were rejecting Mrs May’s deal once again.
An informed source said: “Confidence and supply two is nearly upon us. It’s almost two years, so we’ll have to work on it. We aren’t in a coalition, but it’s pretty close. If anything, C&S2 will have to be even tighter than C&S1. Not talking about putting people in cabinet or anything like that, but deeply involved in every decision, especially on Brexit.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London