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Brexit: Only 'one train of thought in DUP' to oppose NI Protocol

2 weeks ago 12
UK and EU flag flying in Westminster Image caption The government says the Internal Market Bill is designed to be a safety net in case the Brexit negotiations fail

There is "only one train of thought" in the DUP when it comes to opposing the NI Protocol in the Brexit deal, a senior party MP has said.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson made the comments after the government said it would it bring new legislation on customs rules in NI this week.

DUP leader Arlene Foster previously told Sky News she had to recognise the Protocol "is the reality now".

The party rejected the deal and the NI Protocol when it was agreed last year.

The latest round of talks between the UK and EU to reach a trade deal got under way in London on Tuesday, as the NI Secretary Brandon Lewis conceded that the new legislation to amend the NI Protocol will "break international law".

The NI Secretary said it would go against the treaty in a "specific and limited way", but that the legislation was designed to be a safety net, in case the trade negotiations fail.

EU 'not acting in good faith'

Parliament should "wait" until the Internal Market Bill is published on Wednesday, before delivering a verdict, he added.

News of the bill on Monday led to concerns from some of the Stormont parties and the EU that Number 10 would not deliver on commitments about Northern Ireland in the withdrawal agreement.

Unionist parties in NI are strongly opposed to the plan for Northern Ireland in the Brexit deal, fearing it damages the UK union.

Speaking on BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme, Sir Jeffrey accused the EU of "not acting in good faith".

The party's Westminster leader said the DUP had been working with the government "for some time" about addressing elements of the NI Protocol it believes could damage the economy in NI.

"We hope this bill will address key issues presenting a real challenge for business in Northern Ireland, if the EU were to have its way," he said.

Image copyright PAcemaker Image caption Sir Jeffrey said the party leadership was agreed that they should continue to oppose elements of the Protocol

The party issued an official statement on Monday night, almost 24 hours after the initial development first emerged.

The party is "still arguing that in these negotiations the Withdrawal Agreement must be scrapped or changed to take account of the need to protect Northern Ireland's place in the internal market of the United Kingdom", the statement said.

That differs from comments Mrs Foster made on Sky News at the weekend, where she said her party opposed the NI Protocol and the deal, but that it was now "law".

"Boris Johnson is prime minister, he took it to the Commons, he gained the support he needed, and therefore it became law," she said.

"I mean, there are some who would continue to fight against the Protocol, I have to recognise that that is the reality now."

Asked if Mrs Foster had a different view on the NI Protocol than other members in the DUP, Sir Jeffrey replied: "No, there's only one train of thought in the DUP and that's reflected in the statement last night agreed by the party leader and leadership team more generally.

"Arlene was very clear - we have and continue to oppose elements of the NI Protocol that would require a customs border in the Irish Sea."

What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?

The Northern Ireland part of the Brexit deal, known as the Protocol, was agreed in October last year and is due to come into effect at the end of this year.

It is designed to prevent a hard border in Ireland - or even any new checks at the Irish border.

It does this by effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the EU's single market for goods.

This will mean products entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK will be subject to new checks and control - the so-called Irish Sea border.

However, the precise nature of these checks needs to be agreed by the EU and UK and are being negotiated in parallel with the trade talks.

It will also mean when relevant EU laws are amended or new ones are drawn up, they will also apply in Northern Ireland.

Under the plan, Northern Ireland would leave the EU customs union with the rest of the UK at the end of this year, but would continue to enforce the EU's customs code at its ports.

Details on the nature and extent of goods checks at Northern Ireland ports are still to be agreed, ahead of the transition period ending on 31 December.

During the debate in the Commons on Tuesday, Mr Lewis described the Internal Markets Bill as a "reasonable and sensible step".

However Labour's shadow NI Secretary Louise Haigh argued that it was "deeply concerning" the government had sought to make changes at such a late stage in the proceedings.

Mr Lewis said the UK and EU had been working in a "spirit of good faith", and would uphold "fundamental principles that lie behind the Protocol".

"The Withdrawal Agreement was written on the assumption that subsequent agreements could be reached on the detail through the Joint Committee," he added.

"We hope we can do that, but as a responsible government we cannot allow businesses in NI to not have certainty for January, if it's not worked out."

The specialised UK-EU joint committee is made up of government officials, rather than politicians, to work out the practical detail of the withdrawal agreement and NI Protocol.

'Union-splitting agreement'

The DUP, SDLP and Alliance also put questions to the secretary of state about the legislation.

East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson insisted that his party would "judge this bill on whether it lives up to what the government has promised... this union-splitting, economy-destroying and border-creating agreement has to be changed; it can be and should be".

The SDLP's Claire Hanna accused the government of having little contact with the majority of political parties in NI about the proposed plans, while Alliance's Stephen Farry said any changes would "place NI businesses in a very uncertain position" and affect the UK's chances to secure a trade deal with the US in future.

Image caption Labour's Shadow NI Secretary Louise Haigh accused the government of reneging on commitments made to NI in the Brexit deal

In response, Mr Lewis said his government had been in contact with the Stormont parties in recent days and would continue to work with them.

He also said he wanted discussions on the NI Protocol with the EU to come to a "suitable and sensible conclusion".

Although the UK formally left the EU in January, it has continued to follow rules set in Brussels during a transition period - which ends on 31 December - while discussions over a long-term trade agreement continue.

The trade talks are aimed at securing a deal to allow companies to trade without taxes or customs checks.

But Mr Johnson is expected to tell EU leaders it must be agreed in time for the European Council meeting on 15 October, if it is to be in force by 1 January.

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