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Brexit: Northern Ireland parties round on DUP after 'road to Damascus' shift from its red lines

Ralph Hewitt

By Ralph Hewitt

The DUP was last night accused of breaching its own red lines on Brexit after backing Boris Johnson's plan to replace the backstop.

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Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said the DUP's decision to back a plan that included a border in the Irish Sea "represents a road to Damascus conversion".

And TUV leader Jim Allister said the DUP's red line is "not just blurred, it's gone".

Sinn Fein also rejected the plans, claiming they give the DUP a Stormont veto, while Dublin and Brussels also expressed concerns.

The plan would see the creation of a "zone of regulatory compliance" for manufactured goods as well as agri-food products covering the whole of the island of Ireland - which would see Northern Ireland align with EU rules.

Goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK would be subject to identity and documentary checks at either a border inspection post or a designated point of entry.

Northern Ireland would leave the customs union with the rest of the UK, but the plan insisted that that would not mean checks taking place "at, or even near" the border.

Instead, it proposed a system of declarations for goods moving between Northern Ireland and the Republic with only a "very small proportion" undergoing physical checks either at the traders' premises or other designated locations anywhere on the island of Ireland.

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Arlene Foster speaking to media outside Belfast City airport. David Young/PA Wire

The establishment of the zone of regulatory compliance would require the consent of the Stormont Assembly, which would then have to be renewed every four years.

After the DUP backed the plan, UUP leader Robin Swann said the DUP were "fooling no-one with these proposals".

"This new protocol should be deeply concerning for all those who have the long-term economic and constitutional welfare of Northern Ireland and its people at heart," he said.

"Northern Ireland would be locked into continual political debates about Brexit and alignment with the rest of the UK or EU. They would set the theme of every Assembly and Westminster election.

"It plunges Northern Ireland into a referendum in the Assembly Chamber every four years with high stakes consequences for our people. It will keep our businesses and agri-food sector in a perpetual cycle of uncertainty.

"These proposals haven't been thought through and would see DUP statements that Northern Ireland would leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom being flipped on their heads.

"Northern Ireland would become a hybrid part of the UK with a border up the Irish Sea.

UUP leader Robin Swann

"This represents a road to Damascus conversion by the DUP and a very sharp U-turn on statements they made to the Northern Ireland public. The Prime Minister and the DUP were full of big talk. These proposals don't offer them much of a fig leaf."

TUV leader Jim Allister said his litmus test for a deal was whether the UK would leave the EU as one nation.

"Sadly, under these proposals we would not," he said.

"The DUP's vital red line is not just blurred, it's gone."

He added: "Leaving Northern Ireland alone in the EU's single market like this is totally unacceptable and it is staggering that any unionist would even countenance such proposals for a moment. Northern Ireland would remain subject to EU law, not British law, when it comes to the single market. Laws over which we would have no say - a vassal colony of the EU.

"Does anyone seriously believe that nationalists will not use this as a pretext to argue that we would be better off with MEPs in a united Ireland?"

DUP leader Arlene Foster said that the ability of the Stormont Assembly to opt in and out of the tabled all-Ireland regulatory arrangements was the "big difference" from the previous withdrawal deal.

"What it does is allows us to leave the European Union customs union, it allows us to leave the single market and then we opt in if we are not in the position to put in alternative arrangements at that time," she added. "So therefore we consent to whatever is coming forward, so that is the difference.

"It is a big difference and we believe it is something that works for Northern Ireland whilst letting us leave the European Union."

She added: "Part of the difficulty of this process is people have been talking about Northern Ireland in terms of majorities again and I don't think that works, I think we need the consent of the unionist people in Northern Ireland and the consent of the nationalist people.

"That is what the Belfast Agreement is based on, so if we get back into the Assembly, and I hope we get back into the Assembly and Executive very soon, then we can have those conversations about how we move forward collegiately for Northern Ireland."

Despite Northern Ireland being without a power-sharing government for almost three years, Ms Foster does not believe that will provide a stumbling block.

"I don't think it [Stormont] would be inherently unstable if we got back," she said.

"I think we should be back, we should be there. I am willing and ready to go back into Stormont. I am ready to appoint ministers tomorrow and I hope that the others will see that for many, many reasons we need to be in an Executive and Assembly."

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