Belfast Telegraph

We eagerly await May next move but it's still early days

By Suzanne Breen

It's the second draft agreement within a fortnight to have caused an outbreak of hostilities here.

Unionists reacted furiously to the EU's draft legal text yesterday while nationalists were equally quick to welcome it and to denounce unionist opposition. Gone is any hope of a middle ground on Brexit these days.

The tone adopted by the DUP, Ulster Unionists, TUV and PUP in rejecting Brussels' text on a common regulatory area on the island of Ireland was strikingly similar.

UUP MEP and former Remain supporter Jim Nicholson was as staunch in his denunciation as TUV leader and ardent Brexiteer Jim Allister. The alarm was understandable. Keeping Northern Ireland in the customs union while the rest of the UK departs is the stuff of unionist nightmares.

Theresa May moved very quickly moved to allay DUP fears yesterday. Her response in the House of Commons was that no Prime Minister could agree to the proposal. But if parliamentary arithmetic was different, Mrs May would surely not have been so definitive.

Needing to appease both pro and anti-Brexit rebels in her own party, and at the mercy of the DUP if her government is to survive, the Prime Minister is in an almost impossible position.

"It's not OK for people, whether pro-Brexit politicians in Britain or parties in Northern Ireland, to just say no," Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said yesterday. Dublin is insisting that if London shoots down the EU's plan, it must come up with its own and not just "theoretical stuff".

It argues that Mrs May's pledges of no border controls, no trade barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and the UK as a whole leaving the customs union and single market are incompatible.

Some in the hard Brexit camp like Jim Allister believe the PM should be prepared to "pick up the cheque book and walk away" from the negotiating table. 'No deal' is the worst possible scenario for Dublin as it would have a disastrous effect on the Irish economy, but Downing Street seems committed to avoiding that course of action.

The ball is now firmly in Mrs May's court as she prepares to deliver her much awaited Brexit speech in the Commons tomorrow. Will she come up with serious proposals or just attempt to cobble something together to kick the can further down the road yet again?

Despite all the hype yesterday, it's important to remember we are still at the early stages of Brexit negotiations. This was the EU's negotiating gambit. The Sinn Fein-DUP draft agreement at Stormont was far nearer completion than is this text. Everything is still to play for. There will be many more twists and turns in the months ahead.

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