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Irish government boost for May - 'but it's not Brexit,' says Northern Ireland MLA

But Alliance leader says 'there's nothing to fear'

By Jonathan Bell

Ireland is to give Theresa May and the UK Government a Brexit boost by backing an all-UK customs union with the EU after its departure from the union, it has been reported.

However, one Northern Ireland MLA rejected the plan as "not Brexit".

The Financial Times reports - ahead of Leo Varadkar meeting European Council president Donald Tusk and chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier -  officials in Dublin are privately arguing in favour of the proposal for an entire customs union between the EU and UK for a time-limited period.

As well as protecting Irish trade with the UK, it would also prevent a hard border on the island.

It is one of Theresa May's proposals, should no solution be found to the Irish backstop impasse.

Michael Barnier has already rejected the idea.

“It looks like it would resolve that issue [of the border],” a senior Irish official involved in Brexit talks told the Financial Times. “Whether Europe accept it or not is another conversation.”

The forthcoming EU summit on October 18 is seen as crucial to the outcome of the Brexit negotiations.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar warned time is running out to reach a Brexit deal.

Arlene Foster, said the DUP would not agree to any solution which would see a sea border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK - stating her red line was "blood red".

DUP leader Nigel Dodds, at the Conservative party conference, said a custom union with the EU had to include the entire UK and be time-limited.

Alliance leader Naomi Long said it was much more preferable option and could help grow of the Northern Ireland economy.

Citing unionist lobbying for the cut in corporation tax, She said there had been differences "for years" between the UK and Northern Ireland and there was "nothing to fear".

However, Jim Allister said to remain within a customs union with the EU "was not Brexit". He said it "denied the right" for the UK to negotiate trade deals with countries in the rest of the world.

PUP Belfast councillor, John Kyle said the DUP's "insistence on a hard Brexit poses the greatest existential threat to NI since 1921. A special customs arrangement with EU and U.K. would offer enormous economic opportunities and secure the Union for generations." 

The EU, meanwhile, is concerned the proposal would in effect create a back door to the single market without any of the obligations of full membership.

Ahead of travelling to the continent, Leo Varadkar said: "The immediate focus of the Irish Government is on the pressing need for agreement on a Withdrawal Agreement, with an operational and legally-binding backstop.

“The Withdrawal Agreement must ensure that, no matter what the outcome of negotiations on the future relationship between the EU and UK, a hard border on the island of Ireland will be avoided.

“This is critically important to reinforce the stability brought about by the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement.

“The negotiations are entering a critical phase, and time is running out.

“But I believe that an agreement is possible, with the right political will and focus on all sides."

Theresa May said the British proposal was "a free-trade deal that provides for frictionless trade in goods" and that under her plan "the seamless border in Northern Ireland – a bedrock of peace and stability would see no change whatsoever".

She said she would never accept a deal which "carves off Northern Ireland – a part of this country – effectively leaving it in the EU’s customs union".

"We will not betray the result of the referendum and we will never break up our country," she told her party conference.

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