Ludicrous British attempts to resolve the backstop are making matters worse

Posted By: January 12, 2019


Newton Emerson. Irish News. Belfast. Saturday, January 12, 2019

A ludicrous attempt by the British government to give the DUP an assurance on the backstop has only made matters worse.

The government’s proposal was to give the assembly a say on any new EU rules affecting Northern Ireland, with deputy prime minister David Lidington claiming this equated to a “veto.”

The DUP immediately noticed it amounted to no such thing – Westminster would be obliged by treaty with the EU to override any  Stormont objections.

However, Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Irish government were alarmed enough by this unilateral tinkering to voice objections that sounded like ruling out any meaningful Stormont input.

The irony is that Stormont already has a strong consultative role in the backstop via the North-South Ministerial Council. Lobbying for flexibility via this route is likely to be effective – the EU will not want to cause problems for Northern Ireland.

All the British government has achieved is to give even this an air of controversy.


Another Number 10 attempt to push the “ Backstop’ has stored up even greater long-term problems for Northern Ireland. Ministers were warned at a cabinet meeting this week that failure to pass the Withdrawal Agreement would lead to the break-up of the UK, via a border poll and a second Scottish independence referendum. This was all then leaked to the press, presumably in part so the DUP could hear it too.

A ‘cabinet source’ told the Politico website: “The view was that a border poll in Northern Ireland was all-but-inevitable if there is a no-deal Brexit because Sinn Féin would demand it straight away. The Secretary of State would have no choice but to call one.”

In fact, a Sinn Féin demand on its own cannot trigger a border poll – otherwise, we would have had one year ago. The Good Friday Agreement threshold is that a nationalist victory must appear likely to the Secretary of State. But this is vague enough, and the cabinet warning has been made public enough to open the door to all kinds of mischief.


The theory that on Brexit the DUP consists of Westminster hardliners and non-Westminster less-hardliners has always been a simplification, and this is starting to be factored into calculations.

A Downing Street aid has briefed the Sunday Times that “most of the DUP don’t actually want no-deal, except for Sammy” – a reference to Sammy Wilson MP, the party’s Brexit spokesperson. It is hoped the other nine DUP MPs could be persuaded to at least abstain on a Withdrawal Agreement.

If this is wishful thinking on the part of the British government, then the Irish government shares its desperation. In a Radio Ulster interview on Brexit, Tanaiste Simon Coveney said: “We may not be convincing Sammy Wilson, but that’s not the same as convincing unionism.”


The pressures of indirect rule are forcing blue-sky thinking from unexpected quarters. A delegation of Northern Ireland’s three main teaching unions has told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster that it should step in and tackle education bureaucracy here to address the schools funding crisis. The delegation informed the cross-party committee, comprising MPs from Northern Ireland and Britain, that funding per pupil here is around the UK average but is much lower per child by the time our unique eight layers of bureaucracy have each taken their cut – and that is after supposed simplification of the system in 2014 with the setting up of the Education Authority.

This is the sort of profligate waste in the regions that infuriates English backbenchers in particular. While it is unclear what MPs might do, the idea of Northern Ireland being run by a committee of internal and external representatives is fascinating and has a serious pedigree. It was John Hume’s favored option for decades. …