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DUP's Foster calls for Brussels to talk about Brexit backstop alternatives

Theresa May and her husband yesterday
Theresa May and her husband yesterday
Tanaiste Simon Coveney says no ‘credible’ options have been given

By Gillian Halliday

Arlene Foster has once again insisted that alternatives to the Brexit backstop exist, as she accused Sinn Fein of continuing to exploit the fear of the UK quitting the EU with no deal to make demands for a united Ireland.

Writing in today's Belfast Telegraph, the DUP leader has insisted that the question is not "whether alternatives exist or could be agreed", but rather, when negotiations on the matter take place.

She pointed to the EU's decision to reopen negotiations for the Lisbon Treaty, which was initially rejected by the Republic, as evidence of pragmatism displayed by the bloc.

"Whilst the EU is clearly happy to use the threat of a no-deal as a negotiating tactic, Sinn Fein appear content to push towards such an outcome simply to provide fodder for their united Ireland grievance mill," said Mrs Foster.

"Beyond the street pantomime of fake checkpoints and sledgehammers, Mary Lou McDonald has spelt out that Sinn Fein's desire is to use a no-deal exit to agitate for a united Ireland."

Mrs Foster's position appears to have been bolstered by Theresa May after it emerged yesterday that senior members of the hardline Brexiteer-led European Research Group (ERG) have been drafted in to help the Government develop an alternative to the backstop.

ERG deputy leader Steve Baker and former Northern Ireland secretary Owen Paterson are joining the Alternative Arrangements Working Group, which will meet for the first time today, according to Downing Street.

The group - which is expected to meet regularly with Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay - is likely to consider the so-called Malthouse alternative proposals, which are supported by the DUP.

It would see the Northern Ireland backstop "recast" as a "free trade agreement-lite" with a commitment there should be no hard border and an extended transition period to December 2021.

A Downing Street spokeswoman said: "As the Home Secretary set out on Marr [The Andrew Marr Show], the Attorney General (AG) is looking at the legal changes we are aiming to secure to the backstop.

"As the PM has previously said, there are a number of ideas on this, including a unilateral exit mechanism or a time limit and the AG is considering their wording and legal effect. He will be closely engaged throughout the process."

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald yesterday repeated her party's stance that the backstop is the "absolute bare minimum... the bottom line" required.

Speaking on the BBC's Andrew Marr show, Mrs McDonald said the backstop is essential to the protection of the Good Friday Agreement in "all of its parts".

"That is why a backstop, or a set of very specific protections were landed on," she said.

"They are minimal, but they are the absolute bare necessities to ensure that our economy, that our society and crucially our peace agreement isn't disrupted."

Addressing the prospect of a border poll, she said Sinn Fein would "prepare for the worst scenario and protect our national interest".

Her comments yesterday were made less than 24 hours after she told a gathering of party activists in Dublin that the unionist community needs to start "preparing for Irish unity".

Meanwhile, Tanaiste Simon Coveney has again stated the EU's position that the withdrawal agreement will not be renegotiated. Writing in the Sunday Times, he said the decision by MPs last Tuesday to agree to seek alternative backstop arrangements had caused "disappointment and dismay" in the Republic and Europe.

Mr Coveney added that no "credible" options have been put forward as yet, but stressed the EU is "committed to trying to agree alternative arrangements to replace the backstop" once the withdrawal agreement is ratified.

He warned that dispensing with the withdrawal agreement would have serious consequences for Northern Ireland.

"It is now time for the UK to keep its word, to deliver on these commitments and on its responsibilities," he said.

The hardening of the EU position comes as the Prime Minister - who pledged yesterday that she is determined to agree a "pragmatic solution" that delivers Brexit - prepares to returns to Brussels for further negotiations next Wednesday.

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