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The Constitutional position of Northern Ireland is not up for debate - Robin Swann

The following Platform piece by Robin Swann MLA appeared in The Guardian on Wednesday 6th December 2017.

"Much has been said and written about the events of Monday in which an anticipated deal between the UK Government and the EU failed to materialise at the eleventh hour. It could accurately be described as an unedifying shambles. 

The so-called ‘draft text’ began to emerge on Monday morning which was the cause of some alarm for unionists due to its clear indication that Northern Ireland would remain in the customs union and single market along with the Republic of Ireland, whilst Great Britain would not.  

With regard to Monday’s failure, many questions remain as to who knew what and when, but one thing is very clear - whoever thought that the proposals were acceptable to the Unionist population of Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom, clearly had no understanding of unionists or unionism.

As unionists we want to play a full and constructive role in the life of the Nation. Our position as an integral part of the United Kingdom is something which we value and cherish.

Our commitment to the Union could not be shaken by a thirty-year terrorist onslaught and it was the Ulster Unionist Party which took risks for peace in the Belfast Agreement in 1998. My colleagues such as Lord Empey were key architects of that Agreement and therefore when they speak about it, they do so with some authority. As Lord Empey has made clear, Europe was barely mentioned during the negotiations and was certainly not central to the Agreement.

Whilst the Ulster Unionist Party advocated remaining within the EU, once the UK as a whole voted to leave, we were very clear as to what had to happen next. We are democrats. 

There can be no separate arrangements for Northern Ireland which is exactly what would have been introduced via a commitment to “no regulatory divergence” across the island of Ireland after Brexit or “continued regulatory alignment” between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

This would effectively introduce a border up the Irish Sea and would be nothing less than an attack on UK sovereignty and would run contrary to what many people voted for in the Brexit Referendum.

Rather than return sovereignty from Brussels to the UK, Monday’s proposals would have created an internal border within the UK, by ensuring that one part of the UK – Northern Ireland – would still be subject to the rules and regulation set by Brussels, whilst the rest of the UK would not. 

To effectively establish a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is totally unacceptable to unionists whether they once voted leave or remain.

The leaked text would present serious challenges to the economic, constitutional and political integrity of the United Kingdom. It would undermine the Belfast Agreement, breach the principle of consent and fundamentally alter the relationship between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. No amount of 'constructive ambiguity' would cover that up.

Anything that weakens our regulatory regime or means that regulations applicable in Northern Ireland could be set in Dublin or Brussels without consultation, rather than being established in Belfast or Westminster, would be wholly unacceptable. We would be left voiceless and have no say on their design or implementation. It would also mean that if the UK Government is negotiating future trade deals across the world, we would be seen as a place apart. What kind of unionist worthy of the name could ever countenance that?

These are not just the comments of those of us from Northern Ireland. The leader of the Scottish Conservatives, Ruth Davidson MSP, said that whilst she recognised the complexity of the current negotiations, “no government of the Conservative and Unionist Party should countenance any deal that compromises the political, economic or social integrity of the United Kingdom.” 

She also said that jeopardising the UK’s own internal market “is in no-one’s interest.”

You do not have to be a political analyst to see the inherent dangers in a position which facilitates different Brexit deals for different parts of the United Kingdom as comments from Edinburgh, Cardiff and even London have demonstrated.

The Ulster Unionist Party is very clear that we need to resolve the current situation. We need to reach a deal whereby the United Kingdom - and that means ALL of the United Kingdom - secures its departure from the EU on the best terms possible.

Certainly Northern Ireland – which post Brexit will be the only part of the UK with a land border with the EU – wants to see Brexit negotiations proceed and succeed. Whilst we have no desire to have customs controls placed on our trade with Great Britain, we also recognise the need to ensure that the cross-border trade arrangements with the Republic of Ireland are as seamless as possible.  

But everyone should be very clear, whether they are in London, Dublin, Brussels or Belfast.

Northern Ireland`s constitutional position cannot and should not be used as a bargaining chip. The constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom is not up for debate. Instead we should be working together to get the best deal for ALL the people of the United Kingdom. We are indeed stronger together."

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