DUP warns PM it won't back any deal that 'traps us in EU'
The DUP has warned it won't support any Brexit deal that traps Northern Ireland in the EU as Brussels and London entered intensive negotiations to broker a new agreement in a race against time.
The SDLP and Alliance welcomed reports of positive movement towards a compromise while Sinn Fein said the next week would be critical.
The UUP claimed that the DUP had "opened the door" to separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
Sir Reg Empey said: "The DUP have walked Northern Ireland into a constitutional, political, economic and regulatory no man's land.
"They have demonstrated a total lack of any strategic appreciation of what they are doing."
Brexit negotiations are to enter the "tunnel" phase of intensive and secret dialogue as Boris Johnson races against time to deliver Brexit on October 31.
The accelerated talks were agreed to by the EU27 after a "constructive meeting" between the bloc's chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay in Brussels.
Mr Johnson cautioned that it wasn't yet a "done deal", adding: "There's a way to go. It's important now that our negotiators on both sides get into proper talks about how to sort this thing out."
Amidst speculation of movement on customs arrangements to avoid Irish border checks, the DUP issued its first statement since the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister said they could see a "pathway to a possible deal".
Arlene Foster said that while the negotiations were a matter for the Government, her party would "exercise our considerable influence" to "stand up for Northern Ireland" and would only support arrangements in its long-term economic and constitutional interests.
Mrs Foster said: "We are regularly in touch with the Prime Minister and as a result he is aware of our views.
"We have been consistent in our opposition to the backstop, whether UK or Northern Ireland only. Anything that traps Northern Ireland in the EU, whether single market or customs union, as the rest of the UK leaves, will not have our support. The Prime Minister is very mindful of that."
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said: "Negotiations are at a very sensitive point. Any deal must have legal and enduring guarantees that deliver for Ireland.
"We're seeing very little detail from the meeting. The next week will be critical.
"Any deal should include the backstop as the bottom line in protecting Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. No veto can be given to unionism."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood welcomed positive reports from Mr Johnson's meeting with Leo Varadkar.
"People, businesses and communities on this island need the certainty of knowing that there will be no hard border, no physical infrastructure and no tariff wall impeding their lives and livelihoods," he said.
"Both governments and the EU negotiators need space to work out the detail and we'll wait to see that detail before coming to a judgment. But what must be clear is that a customs border on this island will not work."
But TUV leader Jim Allister warned: "Any subjection of Northern Ireland to the EU customs code and tariffs, wheresoever collected, would leave us in the captivity of the EU, governed by laws we didn't make and divorced from the UK customs union. No ifs, no buts.
"Aligning Northern Ireland with EU customs territory and single market equates to leaving in name only and guarantees divergence from the UK and ever closer union with the Republic."
Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said: "Any withdrawal agreement must recognise the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, ensure open borders, protect our economy and respect the Good Friday Agreement fully.
"We will keep an open mind and judge anything on these lines. We would encourage others to be measured and not rush to judgement."
While both governments are talking up the chances of an agreement, sources said that a 'technical extension' may still be needed to get a deal across the line.
Mr Johnson declined to give a direct answer when twice asked by reporters if Northern Ireland would leave the EU customs union on October 31.