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My Lords, in 2016, 17.4 million people voted in the referendum to leave the EU—the biggest mandate in the history of the United Kingdom. In the 2017 election, 83% of the votes cast were to politicians who promised to honour the referendum result and to deliver an exit from the EU. I appreciate the fact that politicians are considered by many as untrustworthy, and always ready to break their election promises for personal or party advantage. But failure to honour the solemn pledge given to the electorate in 2017 will lead to a total breach of faith and will drag the integrity of our democracy further into the mire. There is an issue of trust at stake here. Let no one take the electorate for fools. The firm promises made are not reflected in the proposed withdrawal agreement.
Since the referendum, a group of well-funded operators has done everything to sabotage the decision of the British people and the negotiations, even though the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, promised:
“This is your decision; the Government will implement what you decide”.
Our Prime Minister consistently told the British people that no deal was better than a bad deal. But now it seems that many politicians, including the Prime Minister, have done a political summersault to proclaim that any deal is better than no deal. The Prime Minister has mistakenly framed the choice as being this deal or no deal. However, it is not a binary choice, and the DUP is focused on building support for better arrangements.
Let me now turn respectfully to the internationally legally binding withdrawal agreement, which we oppose. I do not believe that it represents a good deal for Northern Ireland. On
Sadly, the withdrawal agreement proposed by the Government and presented to us does exactly that.
The withdrawal agreement is flawed. While it contains some good elements, we do not support the inclusion of what is described as the “backstop protocol”, which would be activated automatically after the transition period and would continue unless and until a new trade agreement is concluded between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Despite assurances that the backstop is not and never will be the preferred outcome of the Government, we consider it ill advised to accept an outcome that enshrines in legal text the possibility that we could still have a Northern Ireland-specific backstop in place, consequently treating Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the United Kingdom. Clearly the United Kingdom would be unable to exit it without the agreement of the EU.
My party has consistently indicated, both publicly and privately, that all parts of the United Kingdom must leave the European Union together. In doing so, Northern Ireland must not be subject to present and future European regulations while our sovereign Parliament has no role in the setting of those regulations, which impact on important sectors of our economy. This would create a major constitutional deficit, leaving open the reality that in vital areas of our economy the Irish Government alone would have influence in the setting of such regulations. The people of Northern Ireland are resolved to remain part of this great United Kingdom and have no desire to be part of any united Ireland. Indeed, it has cost the blood of many of their loved ones to defend this democratic decision.
In December 2017, we advised the Prime Minister not to sign up to the joint report, which contained a commitment to introduce backstop arrangements. Regrettably, the Prime Minister proceeded. In my view, agreeing to fallback arrangements before talks on the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union had commenced was unwise and left the United Kingdom in a weaker negotiating position. The EU and the Irish Republic’s negotiators recognised this weakness and took advantage of it.
In December 2017, we insisted on new paragraph 50 being added to that report, to guard Northern Ireland’s trade within the United Kingdom single market. But paragraph 50 has not been incorporated into the withdrawal treaty, and therefore at present would have no legal force. The backstop arrangements in operation would lead to a divergence of regulations within the United Kingdom, and the consequences of such a divergence would create barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and, inevitably, would increase costs for business and consumers.
In addition to a trade barrier in the Irish Sea, the withdrawal agreement would mean that rules made in Brussels, where Northern Ireland would have no representation, would govern our core industries. Democratically, that is not acceptable. Our objections to that have been confirmed by others. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said:
“I don’t think this backstop is a good arrangement for our economy. I don’t think it is a good arrangement for our Union”.
We appreciate the value of forward business planning, but we have a responsibility to ensure that any legal agreement is genuinely the best foundation for the economic well-being of Northern Ireland.
The tragedy is that the backstop is utterly unnecessary. The Irish Prime Minister, the United Kingdom Prime Minister and the European Union have stated categorically that they will not in any circumstances impose a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Again, can we believe them? We want a deal that works for Northern Ireland and we are continuing to use our influence to secure a better outcome.
It is now clear from the Attorney-General’s advice on the legal effect of the protocol on Northern Ireland that we have been vindicated in our opposition to the backstop arrangements contained in the withdrawal agreement. We are told in the Attorney-General’s advice that Northern Ireland,
Goods passing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will therefore be subject to a declaration process. Northern Ireland will remain in the single market for goods and in the EU customs regime and will be required to apply and comply with the relevant standards and rules. This opens up regulatory divergence in the future.
As outlined by the Attorney-General, the implication of Northern Ireland remaining in the EU single market for goods while Great Britain does not is that, for regulatory purposes,
“GB is essentially treated as a third country by NI for goods passing from GB to NI”.
This is totally unacceptable and economically mad in that it would be erecting internal economic and trade barriers within the United Kingdom.
In conclusion, my colleagues in the Democratic Unionist Party have no intention of breaking our pledge to the electorate, and neither will we let this Government or the EU stitch up Northern Ireland in the interests of what is known as political expedience. The loyal people of Northern Ireland must not be betrayed and used simply as a bargaining chip with Europe. We are part of the United Kingdom today, and that is our future.