‘It was breaking Northern Ireland away, both in economic terms and indeed in constitutional terms’
DUP leader Arlene Foster has said the proposed backstop would run a “coach and horses” through the Good Friday Agreement as she backed Boris Johnson‘s attempts to have it removed from the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU.
Mr Johnson has prompted stern responses from EU leaders after he demanded the removal of the backstop, a set of measures aimed at avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland, which he called “undemocratic”.
During Mr Johnson’s visit to Northern Ireland on his tour of the UK since becoming the new Prime Minister, Ms Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party which props up the Tory Government, backed his approach to Brexit.
‘A continuing and fundamental flaw’
Speaking on Sky News, she said: “The backstop has been a continuing and fundamental flaw within the Withdrawal Agreement. We have pointed that out right since its inception.
“And unfortunately, Theresa May was unable to deal with that issue. We very much hope that our new Prime Minister will deal with the issue.
“He will get across to those in Europe, and particularly in Dublin, the fact that they cannot break up the United Kingdom, because essentially, that’s what the backstop was doing.”
The backstop aims to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic by keeping the UK inside the customs union and Northern Ireland aligned to EU rules if no trade deal is agreed that can deliver the same objective by the end of the transition period.
Mrs Foster said: “It was breaking Northern Ireland away, both in economic terms and indeed in constitutional terms, which of course, runs completely contrary to the Belfast Agreement.”
‘Principle of consent’
She said that it would not be in line with “the principle of consent, which says that, for as long as the people of Northern Ireland wish to remain within the United Kingdom, they should do so”.
“And the backstop was running a coach and horses through that, and therefore it is very important that the backstop goes.”
The Good Friday, or Belfast Agreement, was signed in 1998 and brought decades of conflict to an end in Northern Ireland.
The Prime Minister dined with Ms Foster and other senior party colleagues in Belfast on Tuesday amid ongoing negotiations aimed at renewing the Conservatives’ confidence and supply deal with the unionist party, which is keeping Mr Johnson’s minority Government in power.
The dinner in Belfast was organised ahead of Mr Johnson’s first visit to Stormont as Prime Minister, where he is holding a series of meetings with the five main parties on Wednesday morning.
Critics have claimed the Government is unable to act as an impartial mediator in talks to restore the crisis-hit institutions due to the controversial Westminster deal with the DUP.
Mr Johnson denied a conflict of interest as he arrived at Stormont House on Wednesday. “It’s all there in the Good Friday Agreement, we believe in complete impartiality and that’s what we are going to observe,” he said.
“But the crucial thing is to get this Stormont government up and running again.”
Mr Johnson said he was in Northern Ireland to concentrate on the devolution impasse, and said: “Clearly the people in Northern Ireland have been without a government, without Stormont, for two years and six months, so my prime focus this morning is to do everything I can to help that get up and running again because I think that’s profoundly in the interests of people here, of all the citizens here in Northern Ireland.”
On Brexit, Mr Johnson said: “The crucial thing to stress is, I obviously attach huge importance to the letter, spirit of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement and will be insisting on that.”
Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since early 2017, with hamstrung civil servants currently running under-pressure public services amid a reluctance by the Government to re-introduce direct rule.
Stormont’s two main parties – the DUP and Sinn Fein – remain at loggerheads over a series of long-standing disputes, with a series of talks initiatives aimed at securing a resolution having ended in failure.
The DUP’s 10 MPs have propped up the minority Government since the 2017 general election – an arrangement that delivered a £1 billion boost in public spending in Northern Ireland.
The last DUP/Sinn Fein-led powersharing coalition imploded in January 2017 when the late Martin McGuinness quit as Sinn Fein deputy first minister amid a row about a botched green energy scheme.
The fallout over the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) was soon overtaken by disputes over the Irish language, same-sex marriage and the toxic legacy of the Troubles.
Mrs Foster told Sky News: “Well, I very much hope that we do get back into Stormont as quickly as possible. Of course, we don’t have any red lines, we will be back in Stormont on tomorrow delivering on health education, roads, creating jobs for the people of Northern Ireland.
“Unfortunately, Sinn Fein has a long list and from what I’ve heard this week, it’s a list that’s getting longer as to what has to be achieved before they will even come back into Stormont and of course they should be in the assembly delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.”
Additional reporting by Press Association.