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DUP's Brexit blunder will ensure Northern Ireland is trapped in EU customs union, warns Empey

UUP peer claims party has been out-manoeuvred in negotiations

The UUP’s Lord Reg Empey
The UUP’s Lord Reg Empey
DUP MP Nigel Dodds
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald
Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg

By David Young

The DUP has been accused of "opening the floodgates" to Northern Ireland staying within the customs union by backing Boris Johnson's plan for a border in the Irish Sea.

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Reports from Brussels suggested the Prime Minister has now sought to revive a proposal by his predecessor Theresa May for Northern Ireland to remain politically in a customs union with the EU, although it would be administered by the UK.

The plan would avoid the need for customs controls on the island of Ireland - something the EU is adamantly opposed to.

Yesterday, Ulster Unionist chairman Lord Empey criticised the DUP after deputy leader Nigel Dodds attempted to distance his party from the deal being mooted between Mr Johnson's government and Brussels.

Lord Empey said: "Having realised their monumental blunder the DUP are now trying to run away. The DUP opened the floodgates by agreeing and advocating a regulatory border in the Irish Sea. This was the green light that Dublin and Brussels were waiting for.

"Knowing the political jam that Boris Johnson is in, Dublin and Brussels applied pressure and Boris Johnson, with the blessing of the DUP, gave way.

"Given that some of Boris Johnson's advisers couldn't care less about Northern Ireland and the Union, this is no surprise.

"Nigel Dodds must take responsibility for opening this can of worms.

"He and his colleagues have been out-flanked, but it is the ordinary business people and the rest of us who will be asked to pay the price."

A DUP spokesman accused Sir Reg of "talking nonsense based on speculation".

"We want to see a sensible and balanced negotiated agreement as we leave the EU. We will stand up for Northern Ireland," he said.

"The DUP has always indicated that the United Kingdom must leave the EU as one nation and in so doing that no barriers to trade are erected within the UK.

"In order to secure a sensible deal for everyone it is important that the European Union understand that to maximise the prospects of agreement there will need to be a clear acceptance that the economic and constitutional integrity of the whole of the United Kingdom will have to be respected as we leave."

North Belfast MP Mr Dodds had said Mr Johnson's proposed solution for a customs partnership between the UK and the EU cannot work, because Northern Ireland must remain fully in the UK.

The reported plan would create a customs border in the Irish Sea with goods travelling from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland being subject to tariffs which Britain would collect on behalf of the EU. Businesses would then be able to claim a rebate once they had shown the goods were for consumption in the UK market.

However it would mean that Northern Ireland would be able to benefit from any post-Brexit trade deals the UK struck with other countries.

The 'double customs' plan is aimed at avoiding any need for customs controls on the island of Ireland. But Italian newspaper La Repubblica quoted Mr Dodds as saying that Mr Johnson knew the DUP's position on the latest proposals and that any return to Mrs May's plan to resolve the border issue would not be acceptable to his party.

Mr Dodds said: "There is a lot of stuff coming from Brussels, pushed by the Europeans in the last hours, but one thing is sure: Northern Ireland must remain fully part of the UK customs union. And Boris Johnson knows it very well. No, it cannot work."

The DUP's views carry considerable weight with a number of influential Brexit-backing Conservative MPs, whose support will be needed by the Prime Minister if he is to get any kind of Brexit deal through the House of Commons before his self-imposed deadline of October 31.

However, one DUP ally warned compromise was inevitable if there was to be an agreement. Jacob Rees-Mogg also hinted he may even have to "eat my words" and support a plan close to one put forward by Mrs May which he described as "completely cretinous".

Pressed on whether it could be close to Mrs May's plan, he said: "We'll have to find out in a day or two whether I'll have to eat my words or not - time will tell."

He added: "There's a line from Churchill saying that he often had to eat his words and he found it to be a very nourishing diet - and that is something that happens in politics."

His comments on Sky News's Sophy Ridge on Sunday will be seen as a sign of nervousness that hardline Tory Brexiteers could scupper any agreement Mr Johnson is able to reach, just as they thwarted his predecessor.

In a conference call with Cabinet ministers to brief them on the negotiations, Mr Johnson said that while he could see a "pathway" to a deal there was still a "significant amount of work" to be done.

"The Prime Minister said there was a way forward for a deal that could secure all our interests, respect the Good Friday Agreement, get rid of the backstop and get Brexit done by October 31," a No 10 spokesman said.

Yesterday, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald spoke to Mr Johnson by phone to discuss Brexit.

"I told the Prime Minister that any deal agreed must have legal and enduring guarantees that deliver for Ireland," she said later.

"There can be no customs border on our island. Our livelihoods, our economy and our peace must be protected.

"I also sought confirmation that there would be no veto gifted to DUP Brexiteers on protections for Ireland - such a position would be intolerable."

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