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May's new backstop proposal protects Northern Ireland, says Dodds

Prime Minister Theresa May leaves after the meeting
Prime Minister Theresa May leaves after the meeting
Boris Johnson arriving in Downing Street yesterday
Liam Fox and David Davis
Karen Bradley
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

The DUP has said Northern Ireland's constitutional status is protected in Theresa May's backstop proposal, which could keep the UK in the customs union until 2021.

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But nationalists said the Prime Minister was still failing to come up with a solution that addressed the problems caused by Brexit.

Mrs May twice met with Brexit Secretary David Davis yesterday amidst reports he would resign unless she set a clear time limit on the temporary customs arrangement.

There was no fixed deadline in the document eventually published, which stated only that the UK "expects" a final customs solution to be in place by the end of December 2021 at the latest.

The paper is the Government's counter to an EU proposal to keep Northern Ireland in the customs union after Brexit, which was rejected outright by Mrs May because it would mean a border in the Irish Sea.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said: "The backstop in the technical report issued applies to the entire United Kingdom.

"That is positive and a step forward. It is another demonstration of the Prime Minister's commitment to the Union. The previously proposed annexation of Northern Ireland was totally unacceptable.

"We must also remember that the backstop will only be used as a last resort. The focus must now be on getting a new trade deal. This is in the best interests of the United Kingdom, European Union and Republic of Ireland."

But Tanaiste Simon Coveney warned that unless there was a legally-binding assurance that a hard border would be avoided "in all circumstances", there could be no progress on other elements of the Brexit talks.

"Ireland and the (European) Commission have both stressed that substantial progress on the backstop is needed before the June European Council," he said.

"Clearly, a great deal of work remains to be done and this needs to be the highest priority for all sides in the weeks ahead."

In a letter to Tory MPs, obtained by The Times, the Prime Minister described the UK proposal as "unpalatable but at worst temporary" and "in no way the Government's intended or desired" result.

The Government did not expect it to be implemented as it intended to have a permanent customs arrangement in place by the end of 2020, she said.

But Mrs May maintained it was right to have a fallback option ready in case the process was delayed "for technical reasons".

She said the Government was "committed to making sure that the future arrangements are in place by the end of December 2021 at the very latest" and to ensuring the UK leaves the customs union.

Mrs May is facing a possible defeat in the House of Commons next week on an amendment that would require her to try to negotiate a permanent customs union with the EU. With Labour MPs whipped to back the Lords amendment, Tory Remainers are understood to believe they have enough support to mount an effective rebellion.

However, Mrs May is expected to win a second vote on membership of the European Economic Area after Jeremy Corbyn ordered his MPs to abstain in favour of an alternative Labour motion. Under the new backstop proposals, if no agreement on customs has been implemented by the end of 2020, a temporary arrangement would ensure that no "tariffs, quotas, rules of origin (or) customs processes" applied to UK-EU trade.

At the same time the UK would be able to strike free trade agreements with other countries.

Rather than setting a firm deadline for the end of the backstop, the document stated: "The UK expects the future arrangement to be in place by the end of December 2021 at the latest. There are a range of options for how a time limit could be delivered, which the UK will propose and discuss with the EU."

A source close to Mr Davis said there had been "a back and forth" on the wording of the paper, which "now expresses, in much more detail, the time-limited nature of our proposal".

The Prime Minister also held separate face-to-face discussions with leading Brexiteers Boris Johnson and Liam Fox. None of the three ministers threatened to resign during the discussions, a spokeswoman for Mr May said.

However, the European Parliament's Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt said it was "difficult to see" how the UK proposal could deliver "a workable solution" to avoid a hard border.

"A backstop that is temporary is not a backstop, unless the definitive arrangement is the same as the backstop," he said.

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier is due to discuss the proposal with Mr Davis in Brussels next week, ahead of a crunch summit of EU leaders starting on June 28.

Mr Barnier said they would examine them in the light of three questions: "Is it a workable solution to avoid a hard border? Does it respect the integrity of the single market/customs union? Is it an all-weather backstop?"

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