Arlene Foster has said that a solution to the border problem that will work for Northern Ireland is "close" following a meeting with Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab at Stormont yesterday.
The DUP leader’s comments came as speculation intensified that a deal between the UK and the EU could be concluded as early as November 21.
Last night reports suggested that the Prime Minister could try to bounce her Cabinet into a final decision on Brexit on Tuesday.
Sources told the Irish Independent that the UK Government is now determined to find an answer to the so-called Irish question, and to get the deal over the line in the coming days.
Mrs May’s divided Cabinet could meet as early as Tuesday to thrash out the final wording, in a move that would facilitate a special meeting of EU leaders on November 21 and 22.
The latest proposal on the table involves a two-speed backstop, whereby the whole UK will sign-up to a customs arrangement with the EU.
Northern Ireland would remain fully aligned to EU trade rules to ensure the movement of goods across the border continues without the need for customs checks.
England, Scotland and Wales would be tied into a “bare bones” customs arrangement, in which it would apply a common external tariff on imports from outside the union and rules of origin.
This would be enough to prevent the need for checks on goods travelling across the Irish Sea.
Mr Raab visited Warrenpoint, Newry and Larne before holding talks with leaders of the five main parties during his first visit here.
Speaking after meeting Mr Raab yesterday, the DUP leader said: “We have been here on a number of occasions and I think we are close to a deal that will work for Northern Ireland. That is what we want.
“This was a useful discussion where we emphasised that the United Kingdom must leave the European Union together.
“Northern Ireland must not be carved into an arrangement which undermines the constitutional or economic integrity of the UK.
“To do anything else will be to run a coach and horses through the historic agreements in which the principle of consent is enshrined.”
Mrs Foster said she wanted to see “a sensible exit from the EU which works for Northern Ireland, the UK and also our nearest neighbours in the Republic of Ireland”.
“There is no need for a return to the border posts of the past,” she added.
“Those who suggest such are recklessly scaremongering and only giving succour to people with violent intent.”
After meeting the political leaders, Mr Raab made it clear that the Government would not sign up to anything “that would threaten the economic, the constitutional, let alone the territorial integrity, of the United Kingdom.”
But he fell short of ruling out any new regulatory checks at the border.
“We are engaged in a negotiation process,” he said.
“We have made it very clear that whether it’s the customs regime for the UK as a whole, or the wider economic integrity of the UK as a whole, we will not allow any proposals to be accepted that would jeopardise that.
“The deal we strike with the EU must avoid a hard border and work for all parts of the community in Northern Ireland. Of course, we want to maintain frictionless trade with our EU partners, but the internal market within the UK is absolutely crucial, too.
“They are not binary choices.We want to preserve both and also enhance and increase our opportunities for global trade which would be good for the UK and good for Northern Ireland, too.”
But following the meeting Sinn Fein accused the Government of acting “in bad faith” and warned the border issue is not a “footnote”.
Party president Mary Lou McDonald said the Government has “stepped back” from its commitment to uphold the Good Friday Agreement and added that her meeting with Mr Raab was “direct”.
“We have set out in the plainest terms the need for a backstop.
“We reminded him that his government last December signed up to that. His government are acting in bad faith.
“They have stepped back from their commitments to protect the Good Friday Agreement. We have left him in no doubt this is wholly unacceptable.
“With the exception of the DUP, the view is we need to act in a responsible way which recognises the damage Brexit can and will do to our economy and our peace agreements.”
UUP leader Robin Swann MLA welcomed Mr Raab to Northern Ireland, but said a longer visit would have been better.
“I only wish he could have come for longer and am disappointed he could spend so little time listening to different voices,” he said.
“As we do not have an Executive in place to ensure that Northern Ireland’s case is made in the Brexit negotiations, it is all the more important that senior figures such as Dominic Raab should come here and meet with local businesses and political parties to hear first-hand about the main concerns and issues as to how we will be affected.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood MLA emphasised what he called the “catastrophic implications of Brexit”.
“We emphasised how disastrous a no-deal Brexit will be for the people of the North.
“The British government must not underestimate this and ensure the backstop is part of the deal.
“The backstop, albeit not perfect, must be in place and must be permanent.”
Alliance leader Naomi Long MLA also stressed the need for a backstop to ensure no hard border after any Brexit following a “worthwhile” meeting.
“It was good to have the opportunity, albeit brief, to impress the true interests of the majority of people of Northern Ireland towards Brexit, and the importance of protecting the peace process and our economy,” she said.
“We were keen to give him an understanding that the issues around the border are more than purely economic and even political — they are also emotional and psychological.”
Earlier in the day the Brexit Secretary came under fire for refusing to meet with politicians, business representatives and the Press during his brief visit to Carlingford Lough.
Sinn Fein accused Mr Raab of “coming like a thief in the night” when he arrived at the port, while the SDLP criticised his lack of engagement.
Former Brexit Secretary David Davis had also refused media requests when he briefly visited the border for the first time in April, but Mr Raab’s office said he had a packed schedule on his fact-finding visit.
SDLP South Down MLA Sinead Bradley said Mr Raab’s lack of engagement with local elected representatives was “absolutely disgraceful”.