The UK Government has unveiled major concessions to its Brexit deal to safeguard the integrity of the UK by ensuring the controversial Northern Ireland “backstop” will not create a different regime from the rest of Britain.
Cabinet Secretary David Lidington told MSPs at Holyrood yesterday that if the backstop “insurance policy” is ever used, then the rest of the UK is likely to adopt the regulatory system in place across the Irish Sea.
The compromise move comes as ministers seek to generate support for the deal, which looks increasingly likely to be rejected in the House of Commons on 11 December. A cross majority of MSPs have warned they will reject in a Holyrood vote next week.
It comes amid growing concern from Scottish Tories, as well the Democratic Unionists in Ulster, that if Northern Ireland was to adopt a different regulatory regime it could effectively undermine the union. The backstop has been proposed to avoid the prospect of different regulatory regimes being in place between Northern Ireland and the Republic, which could lead to the prospect of a hard border on the island. This is widely viewed as unacceptable, given the recent history with the Troubles.
Mr Lidington said: “If it were ever used, and we’re looking at how to give effect to this, but what we would be seeking to do to provide assurances to Scotland and in Northern Ireland – and England and Wales for that matter – is to [say] ‘OK, while that’s in GB will not diverge from the regime in Northern Ireland’.”
“The key thing would be industrial goods and actually looking at this at the moment there is not a big demand in the automotive industry, aerospace, chemicals, pharmaceuticals to diverge quickly away from EU standards.
“Businesses themselves would want to take stock of the new arrangements before lobbying for any new arrangements for the future.”
Mr Lidington added: “You can call it a concession if you like. It’s a way of trying to provide reassurance to people that the commitment to the union is very, very deeply felt.
“The prospect of border controls in Ireland could also weaken the ‘assent’ of moderate nationalists to remain in the UK. In the PM’s mind, ensuring no hard border is something that matters to the integrity of the union as a whole.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been among the chief critics of the proposed Northern Ireland backstop plan, insisting it would give the country a competitive advantage over Scotland when seeking to attract inward investment. Mr Lidington again insisted Northern Ireland is only a backstop, which the EU would no more be asking to adopt than the UK – and even if implemented it would only be on an interim basis.
The minister also warned that the Prime Minister’s deal is the only one on the table likely to win the agreement of the other 27 EU member states. The prospect of a so-called “Norway-plus” style arrangement, which would keep the UK in the single market and customs union, is unlikely to win UK government backing, despite gaining traction at Westminster and attracting the support of the SNP.
It would inevitably mean the UK signing up to free movement, according to the minister.
“The real difficulty about that is if you’re going to try to honour the referendum result then there will be an awful lot of people who were in that UK-wide majority to vote leave who would say that free movement was the key thing for them or that keeping control of borders was the key thing,” he added.