Eurosceptic coalition to force Brexit debate on Northern Ireland border checks


Eurosceptic Tories and Democratic Unionists are to force a parliamentary debate on controversial plans for new border control posts at Northern Ireland’s ports.

The move will send alarm bells ringing in Number 10 because it is the first time that the groups have taken concrete action to challenge post-Brexit policy, at a time when the UK is involved in delicate talks with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Last month, the Government introduced legislation in the form of a statutory instrument that would let it build border control posts for agrifood checks at Northern Irish ports.

Ministers said that the infrastructure is required irrespective of whether a deal is done with the EU because checks would need to be carried out on goods destined for the Republic of Ireland, even if No 10 proceeds with a Bill to override the Protocol.

However, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has been incensed by the move, which it sees as an attempt to implement the current Protocol by stealth.

The party has teamed up with leading figures in the European Research Group (ERG) of Conservative MPs to challenge the statutory instrument through a parliamentary tactic known as a “prayer motion”.

While it is unlikely they will succeed in annulling the legislation, it will force a debate on the issue.

David Jones, the deputy chairman of the ERG, told The Telegraph: “The point about this is that these are checks not on goods coming from outside the UK, but from goods coming from within the UK. So in other words, two parts of our country are being treated as if they were separate countries.”

He suggested that moving forward with the border posts risked undermining the Government’s negotiations.

“If you’re adopting a robust negotiating position and you’re threatening to push the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill through the Lords, which is where we are ostensibly, it does look rather odd to be complying with an EU regulation,” he said.

In a warning to No 10 about future parliamentary resistance, he added: “The position of the DUP, the ERG and, indeed, other members of the Conservative Party who are not members of the ERG is indistinguishable. We have exactly the same concerns in terms of sovereignty.”

Sammy Wilson, the DUP’s Brexit spokesman in the Commons, told The Telegraph that the statutory instrument was “typical of this weak, watery, spineless government”.

He added: “They think that somehow by currying favour with the EU by saying ‘Oh look, we’re doing all of the things you wanted us to do’... that that will make the EU more amenable in the negotiations.”

Under the Northern Ireland Protocol, the border control posts were supposed to be built at ports and run by officials from Northern Ireland’s Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

Westminster has justified bringing forward work on the posts itself because the Northern Ireland Executive remains suspended.

Last week, there was a flurry of reports that the UK and EU were nearing an agreement which would involve retaining the European Court of Justice’s (ECJ) role in Northern Ireland, but putting it at arm’s length from the province.

There had been hopes that such a deal could be acceptable to the DUP – which has boycotted the Northern Ireland Assembly for a year – because ending the jurisdiction of the ECJ does not feature in the party’s seven tests for a reformed Protocol.

However, DUP figures said that such optimism was misplaced.

Lord Dodds of Duncairn, the party’s leader in the House of Lords, told The Telegraph that the “fundamental problem” was remaining subject to the laws of the EU’s single market.

“We’ll not be accepting some tinkering around with the court if these laws all stay in place,” he said. “And the only reason they’d be tinkering around with the role of the court is that they intend that the laws do all stay in place.”

Mr Wilson said: “This kind of talk about limited roles and referral roles for the ECJ; it masks the real issue. What we’ve heard this week is, to put it bluntly in our view, totally irrelevant to a deal which takes us back into Stormont.”

Mr Wilson also said he believed that details of the talks were being selectively leaked to put pressure on the DUP and pave the way for a fresh round of assembly elections aimed at outflanking the party.

He said: “One of the reasons why I think you’ve had all the leaks this week, and stories about how well negotiations are going, and how both sides have compromised and how they think they’ve resolved all the issues…

“They’re creating the mood music for an election where they hope people will not look at the detail of any agreement and will simply be influenced by the context and the mood which is being created.”

However, he said that the Government “would still be faced with the same dilemma after that election”, adding: “Namely that they would not have decimated our party, we would still be a party which had to be facilitated in the assembly and would still have the ability to veto the formation of an assembly.”

A government spokesman said: “Our priority is protecting the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and preserving political stability in Northern Ireland and the UK internal market.

“Any solution must address the full range of issues the Protocol is causing in Northern Ireland. We are currently engaging in intensive scoping talks with the EU to find solutions to these problems.”