Belfast Telegraph

John Downing: Change of tone suggests DUP needs ladder to climb down from Brexit rock

DUP leader Arlene Foster (Brian Lawless/PA)
DUP leader Arlene Foster (Brian Lawless/PA)

Forty-one days and counting down towards that Brexit Halloween deadline. The hullabaloo has increased markedly - but when you stand back, we are no nearer a remedy.

Supposing, only supposing, Boris Johnson really does want a deal rather than a calamitous crash-out he might be able to blame upon everyone else, then the only real way is to return to the Northern Ireland-only backstop as conceived in November 2017.

Ireland could probably live with it. It was the EU's original proposal and they only reluctantly extended the principle to the rest of the UK.

And it would allow Mr Johnson to claim he had "freed Britain from the undemocratic backstop".

We are some distance away from all of these things. But the idea has been floated again and everyone is looking at the members of the DUP.

They have been deeply insistent over the past two years that the North must exit the EU on identical terms to Britain. Anything else would undermine the union of the United Kingdom.

As long as Boris Johnson needs the 10 DUP MPs' votes - and he does for now - they will get their way. But UK politics is changing by the hour and the DUP is under huge pressure at home from farmers and business to help avoid a ruinous no-deal end.

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Very belatedly, it is beginning to dawn on Arlene Foster and her colleagues that the North could achieve "the best of both worlds" via continued UK market access and almost total continued EU access. Achieving that would require some political packaging and deft language - the devices which delivered a fragile peace two decades ago.

So, it was encouraging that Ms Foster came to Dublin to speak to the capital's business community on Wednesday night. It was also good news that she then ducked around to Government Buildings and met with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

The DUP leader's tone was upbeat and she was insistent that she did not want a no-deal outcome. But, yet again, she was very short on detail about that can be avoided.

DUP leader Arlene Foster and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar following a 2017 meeting
DUP leader Arlene Foster and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar following a 2017 meeting

However, Tanaiste Simon Coveney was far from being so upbeat yesterday. Yes, the meeting at Government Buildings "was positive and friendly" - but it was nowhere near a breakthrough on a solution, Mr Coveney said.

Still, the DUP change of tone is interesting. It may well be seeking a ladder to help it down off the high Brexit rock it has climbed upon.

There are other problems which must be overcome in the meantime. So far, we are only left with what Boris Johnson told us on September 9 when he visited Dublin. He talked about an all-island approach to animal and food products to conform to EU single market standards.

That would be a help but it would be no use for non-agrifood products circulating on the island of Ireland. And it would still leave the prospect of hefty tariffs under the EU customs union.

So, we would need far more - and in a written text rather than vague oral promises.

We have also already seen reports of Mr Johnson's meeting with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker which raised more doubts about the UK PM's level of knowledge and about his commitment to finding a deal.

Tanaiste Simon Coveney
Tanaiste Simon Coveney

We still look to London for the next move amid surreal chaos where the UK PM is effectively being sued in court by his parliament.

Next week we are talking about potential discussions in New York in the margins of a big United Nations summit.

Is there are any reason to be optimistic?

Well, President Juncker still holds out hopes of a deal - rather than a no-deal.

Irish Independent


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