Belfast Telegraph

Arlene Foster calls for cool heads as Brexit deal hangs in balance

 

DUP leader Arlene Foster has echoed Theresa May's call for "calm heads" ahead of this week's EU Summit - although the former First Minister said she was being "very clear" in her Brexit demands.

The DUP has refused to rule out collapsing the Government if it crosses Mrs Foster's 'blood red lines' on Brexit.

On a visit to Dublin yesterday, Ms Foster said: "We need to see that the whole of the United Kingdom leaves the EU together and there aren't differences made between Northern Ireland and any other parts of the United Kingdom."

The DUP leader met with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar last night and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin.

She described her relationship with the Irish government as "good" and said the ultimate deal on Brexit would have be one that "works for our friends and colleagues in the Republic of Ireland as well".

Ms Foster told reporters it was important to engage, that there was no point in standing back and shouting at each other, that understanding should be developed between unionists and the Irish government.

She added: "There have to be cool heads in what is a very febrile atmosphere."

Mrs Foster said the EU's backstop suggestion whereby Northern Ireland would continue to follow the bloc's rules if no trade deal is struck would create barriers with Great Britain.

"Great Britain is our largest market by far and we cannot have barriers," she said.

The DUP leader said Northern Ireland sent three-and-a-half times more goods to Great Britain than to the Republic.

"So it is very important that we don't have barriers between ourselves and the rest of Great Britain," she added.

Speaking to reporters before a visit to St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin earlier, Mrs Foster said: "When I spoke in Killarney a few months ago, I described our two countries as 'two semi-detached houses' with different interiors but in the same community.

"Sometimes difficulties arise between neighbours when we don't understand each other's positions. I am a unionist. I want to maintain and improve Northern Ireland's place within the United Kingdom. I will oppose any proposal which would damage the Union in the long-term.

"Unionism is united in opposing any backstop which places an international style border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

"A deal which leads to Northern Ireland slavishly following EU rules whilst all the time diverging away from the rest of the United Kingdom undermines the constitution and the single market of the United Kingdom - our main market."

Mr Varadkar suggested a deal may be delayed as late as December. He said Dublin was making preparations for a "potentially catastrophic" no-deal withdrawal, but did not believe this was the most likely outcome.

Mr Martin said he used his meeting with Mrs Foster to emphasis the importance of the so-called Irish 'backstop'.

"I don't think all is lost yet," he said when asked if the UK and EU were moving closer to a 'no-deal' scenario.

However, he added that the politics of Westminster "is very challenging".

"Everybody you talk to wants to avoid a 'no-deal' scenario, that includes Arlene," Mr Martin said.

However, DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson MP said a no-deal outcome was now "probably inevitable" due to the "intransigence" of EU negotiators.

Talks at the weekend foundered over the EU's demand for a "backstop to the backstop" designed to ensure the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic remains open under any circumstances.

Mrs May has offered to keep the whole of the UK temporarily in a customs union with the EU until a broader trade deal is in place avoiding the need for customs and regulatory checks at the Irish border, with the expectation this will not be later than the end of 2021.

But Dublin has already ruled out her time limit proposal, and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier insisted a carve-out, keeping Northern Ireland alone in the EU's customs area, should remain available in case the UK-wide arrangement lapses before the trade deal is finalised.

Mrs May told MPs this was not acceptable as it risked undermining the integrity of the UK.

The PM warned the Irish issue must not be allowed to "derail" progress towards a deal which she said was in the interests of both the UK and EU.

She told MPs she would take steps to ensure that "we cannot be kept in this backstop arrangement indefinitely".

And she warned: "We are entering the final stages of these negotiations. This is the time for cool, calm heads to prevail.

"And it is the time for a clear-eyed focus on the few remaining but critical issues that are still to be agreed."

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn dismissed Mrs May's comments as "another 'nothing has changed' moment from this shambles of a Government".

Meanwhile, Tanaiste Simon Coveney will hold a private meeting today in Luxembourg with Mr Barnier for Brexit talks at the General Affairs Council.

They will discuss the current state of play in negotiations, and in particular talks on the draft Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, including the backstop.

Mr Coveney said he was disappointed further progress had not been made. "It is obviously disappointing that it has not yet been possible to make the decisive progress that we urgently need in the negotiations, despite the intensive efforts of both EU and UK negotiators," he said.

"The (Irish) Government's position is clear - we want the negotiations to succeed but this will only be possible with agreement on a legally robust backstop to avoid a hard border in the withdrawal agreement, which must apply in all circumstances.

"Today's meeting offers another opportunity to thank our EU partners for their solid support and solidarity, which has been unwavering, and to reiterate our total support for Michel Barnier and his Task Force."

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