Ian Paisley Jr has said he is “disgusted” at EU “demands to annex” Northern Ireland after the bloc announced a plan to keep the region in a customs union.
The high-profile DUP MP and hardline Brexiteer said the UK Government must face down Brussels as the EU published on Wednesday morning its draft legal Brexit withdrawal agreement.
It came as Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley insisted the Government’s position was to ensure no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Almost 20 years after the Good Friday Agreement marked the end of sectarian violence on the island of Ireland, many fear a hard border could disrupt peace. Remainers say regulatory alignment with the EU post-Brexit is the only alternative.
“I’m disgusted at what the EU are saying about my country. I’m appalled by it,” said Paisley, speaking as Bradley appeared in front of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee.
“I would like you to bring back to the Cabinet that as a person with a large vote in Northern Ireland, I’m appalled and disgusted at (...) how the EU can dare to say that they want to annex a part of the UK and take it away from the governments of the rest of the UK.”
Paisley told Bradley Theresa May was “now facing the biggest test in the resolve and the character of this government” with the EU.
He said: “I would ask the Government to show some teeth now to the EU that we will not be rolling over to the demands to annex part of our country.”
Paisley is not the first Brexiteer to use the term “annex” in relation to the EU’s plan.
Former Brexit minister David Jones came out on the attack on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme.
He said: “What is proposed is that Northern Ireland should remain part of the customs union, it should effectively be part of the single market, and should, I understand, remain subject to the European court of justice.
“That effectively amounts to an annexure of Northern Ireland by the European Union.”
But questions remain over whether the Government is united on the issue. A leaked letter by Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson to the Prime Minister saw him raise the prospect of a hard border in Northern Ireland.
The letter says “even if a hard border is reintroduced” in Ireland, it would not significantly affect trade.
Johnson had said as recently as November, however, that returning to a hard border was “unthinkable” and would be “economic and political madness”.
When the letter was put to Bradley at the committee, she refused to comment on it directly but underlined that the Government remains committed to no new border infrastructure.
She told the committee: “The constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom is paramount and something that the UK Government will ensure is what we will achieve.”
Bradley underlined the Government is “resolutely behind” the joint EU-UK report from December on Brexit.
“There’s no change in position ... and also no change in our position with regard to support for the Belfast Agreement. We are resolutely behind that,” she said.
“That means that, as the joint reports says very clearly, there will be no hard border. We have said that, the Irish Government have said that and the EU have said that.
“No new physical infrastructure at the border - and that is north-south but also east-west.”
Bradley said the Government is working towards securing what is known as Option A in the Brexit negotiations - the closest possible relationship with the EU.
“That’s what the Government is determined to achieve,” she said.
Bradley said the legal text on the issue of Britain’s withdrawal is an attempt by EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier to codify what a “backstop” Option C would look like.
That issue focuses on trying to avoid regulatory differences on the island of Ireland in the event that a deal cannot be reached on Brexit.
“But this is an EU document. It’s not the British Government’s document. The UK Government has not had input,” she said.
“It is not a final position.”