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Foster reiterates Brexit 'red line' in Brussels meeting with Barnier

And UUP leader Swann believes deal possible within 10 days

EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier with the DUP’s Diane Dodds and Arlene Foster
EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier with the DUP’s Diane Dodds and Arlene Foster
Mrs Foster speaks at a Press conference
Mr Barnier meets the UUP’s Robin Swann and Jim Nicholson
Allan Preston

By Allan Preston

DUP leader Arlene Foster has told the EU's chief negotiator that any Brexit deal must not cross her party's "red line" by placing any economic barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

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And a UK-EU deal could be on the table within 10 days, according to Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann, after he also met Michel Barnier in Brussels yesterday.

Mrs Foster said she would need to read the fine print of any deal proposed by the UK Government. She said she had not seen a text of Theresa May's so-called hybrid backstop.

"We cannot talk in a vacuum. We need to see what has been proposed and we will check that against what we have called our red line," she said.

The DUP has said it will not support any extra barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and Britain.

The UK Government has promised to reveal more information soon on the backstop deal, designed to prevent a hard border in Ireland.

It's reported this could see some regulatory checks on goods travelling from Britain to here.

The EU's version of a backstop wants Northern Ireland to stay in the customs union and single market while the rest of the UK shifts away, which Prime Minister Mrs May has already rejected.

With Mrs Foster's 10 MPs propping up the UK Government, she and DUP MEP Diane Dodds were at the centre of attention in Europe yesterday.

"It is vital that the European Union understands the sensitivities surrounding Northern Ireland and that fact that we are going to be the only integral part of the United Kingdom with a land border with the European Union after we leave next year," Mrs Foster said.

"There cannot be barriers to trade in the UK internal market which would damage the economic well-being of Northern Ireland and therefore we could not support any arrangements which would give rise to either customs or regulatory barriers within the UK internal market."

Mrs Dodds also said her party would not accept any additional checks within the UK after Brexit - even over lasagne.

She illustrated what they were opposing by saying that an attempt to avoid a hard border with the Republic could mean more regulatory checks on goods travelling between Britain and Northern Ireland.

She claimed under the EU position there could be scores of checks on live animals and food products travelling within the UK, "so therefore, our beef lasagnes, our yoghurts, our milk".

"We could be in the rather ridiculous position where milk produced in Northern Ireland by Northern Ireland farmers is processed in England, but has to be checked when it comes back because yoghurts are protein drinks," she said.

"That's the disruption that that would mean in the UK internal market."

Mrs Foster added: "Those are the sorts of things that we have to be very concerned about, so economically, we will very much want to protect our businesses in Northern Ireland."

Mr Barnier tweeted after the meeting that his team was "working hard to de-dramatise the backstop".

Mr Swann said he believed a deal between the UK and EU was possible within as little as 10 days.

"Judging from the atmosphere out here, I've spoken to the UK and Irish ambassadors to the EU, as well Mr Barnier himself," he said.

"I feel there is a deal coming."

He also said he made it clear to Mr Barnier that the EU backstop proposal "was unacceptable to any strain of unionism in Northern Ireland".

"We laid out our concerns in regard to that, he gets it. But I think there's an attitude there that Northern Ireland's position in the UK is a constitutional question for the UK to manage," he added.

"He feels it's not up to him as the EU's chief negotiator to worry about internal problems.

"We're putting across that it is, because it affects the entire deal and where Northern Ireland finishes up as part of the UK."

Mr Swann said he was wary of the upcoming UK backstop plan, which could include checks on goods bound for Northern Ireland from Britain.

"That's something that wouldn't be acceptable to us. It could, for example, start to delay critical manufacturing timelines, which could affect the industry tremendously," he said.

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