A letter from the Prime Minister has been interpreted by DUP leader Arlene Foster to mean that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, Northern Ireland would be separated from the rest of the UK by a customs border in the Irish Sea.
2/2 1st November 2018 letter from Arlene Foster @DUPleader & Nigel @NigelDoddsDUP to the Prime Minister. “It is vital for both NI & the entire UK that if agreement is reached, it must be clear and must not risk opening divergence within the UK for generations to come.” pic.twitter.com/gCcvp01p8O
According to The Times, which obtained the five-page letter also sent to DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds, Mrs May stated that the EU is still pushing for the “backstop to the backstop”, but insists she would not allow a divide to “come into force” between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
No-deal and the Irish border: extracts from the leaked letter
The newspaper said this had been interpreted by the DUP to mean that the EU proposal will become part of the legally binding withdrawal agreement.
“The Prime Ministers letter raises alarm bells for those who value the integrity of our precious Union and for those who want a proper Brexit for the whole of the UK,” Mrs Foster told The Times. “It appears the Prime Minister is wedded to the idea of a border down the Irish Sea with Northern Ireland in the EU single market regulatory regime.”
It was one of the red lines the DUP had warned the Prime Minister not to cross if she wanted its MPs to continue to support the Conservatives in Westminster as part of their confidence and supply deal.
Without the backing of the 10 DUP MPs for key votes such as budgets, Mrs May and her Government face major difficulties – not least getting her Brexit plan through Parliament.
The leaked letter also suggests that the whole of the UK could remain closely tied to EU, as the Government does “not expect regulations to diverge between Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.
In her letter, Mrs May wrote that the backstop was “an insurance policy that no-one in the UK or the EU wants or expects to use” and that it would not last indefinitely.
A Downing Street spokesman told The Times that the Prime Minister would not agree to anything that separates Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
“The Prime Ministers letter sets out her commitment, which she has been absolutely clear about on any number of occasions, to never accepting any circumstances in which the UK is divided into two customs territories. The Government will not agree anything that brings about a hard border on the island of Ireland.”
The DUP has seized on a particular paragraph– which has been seen by the Times – in which May said she could not accept circumstances or conditions that could break up the UK customs territory to come into force.
The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, tweeted on Friday: The PMs letter raises alarm bells for those who value the integrity of our precious union & for those who want a proper Brexit for the whole UK. From her letter, it appears the PM is wedded to the idea of a border down the Irish Sea with NI in the EU SM regulatory regime.
The leak of the letter is seen by some observers, as well as the DUP, as part of a laying of the ground by May for a showdown with the party over checks in British ports or factories in Northern Ireland or Britain.
Under the EU proposals, UK officials would be competent authorities to conduct the checks, but to EU rules, something the DUP has said will cross its red line.
The DUP MP Sammy Wilson heaped further pressure on the government, telling the BBC Radio 4s Today programme that the letter was sent to the party but was put into the public domain by Downing Street. I assume its part of the precess of trying to get into the public domain what will finally be agreed, he said.
A Downing Street spokesman said: The prime ministers letter sets out her commitment, which she has been absolutely clear about on any number of occasions, to never accepting any circumstances in which the UK is divided into two customs territories. The government will not agree anything that brings about a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The EU has insisted on a Northern Ireland-only backstop to the backstop in case negotiations on a wider UK approach break down. Any version of the backstop would apply unless and until a wider UK-EU deal on the future relationship solved the issue of how to avoid a hard border with Ireland.
The row comes as Brexit is expected to dominate the agenda of the British Irish Council, which will be attended by the taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, David Lidington, who is in effect Mays deputy, and the Northern Ireland secretary, Karen Bradley. The summit on the Isle of Man will also be attended by the first ministers of Scotland and Wales, Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones.
Read more Brexit is also expected to be a focal point when May meets the French president for a working lunch after attending armistice commemorations in Belgium and France.
Downing Street has played down suggestions that a Brexit deal is imminent, after the European council president, Donald Tusk, appeared to indicate a breakthrough could come within the next week.
Meanwhile, Eurosceptic Conservative MPs have said they will still vote down the governments Brexit deal, even if May negotiates an exit clause from the Irish backstop, according to the former minister Steve Baker.
The cabinet has been locked in a bitter internal wrangle about whether, and how, the government could extricate itself from the backstop, with some ministers concerned Mays plans could leave the UK in a permanent limbo.