Draft agreement was a ‘big shock’ to Democratic Unionists, says Arlene Foster
DUP shock: Arlene Foster with party colleagues Jeffrey Donaldson and Nigel Dodds in Belfast on Monday. Photograph: David Young/PA Wire
The Government has rejected claims by the DUP leader that it wanted to prevent her party from seeing details of the Border deal that the UK was planning to agree with the European Commission in order to break the Brexit deadlock.
Arlene Foster told Sky News that British officials told her “the Irish Government wouldn’t allow them to share” the text of the proposed deal, which collapsed on Monday after a DUP rebellion at Westminster, where the party keeps Theresa May’s Conservative minority government in power through a confidence-and-supply arrangement.
The Irish Government said it had “no role whatsoever in the negotiations conducted by the British government. It therefore had no involvement in any decision on which documents should go to the DUP.”
Following the DUP’s dramatic rejection of the proposal that regulation on the island of Ireland continue to be aligned after Brexit, Ms Foster said that her party spent five weeks trying to obtain a draft of the deal and that, when it finally saw it, on Monday, it was “a big shock”. She told RTÉ: “When we looked at the wording, and had seen the import of all that, we knew we couldn’t sign up to anything that was in that text that would allow a border to develop in the Irish Sea.”
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the Dáil earlier in the day that Ireland cannot move on to phase two of Brexit negotiations without the assurances it has been promised by Britain.
When Sky News put it to Ms Foster this afternoon that the Irish Government has said it will not budge on the substance of the issue, she replied: “The Irish Prime Minister can be as unequivocal as he likes. We’re also unequivocal in relation to these matters.”
“Ball in London’s court”
Mr Varadkar told the Dáil earlier: “The ball is very much in London’s court. There is time to put this agreement back on track, and we await to hear from London as soon as they’re ready.” He added this afternoon that Monday’s collapsed deal had three possible options: an EU-UK free-trade agreement that would allow free trade to continue between Britain and Ireland; a bespoke arrangement involving technology; or, if all else fails, an ongoing regulatory alignment between the North and the South.
What an absolutely ludicrous, incompetent, absurd, make it up as you go along, couldn’t run a piss up in a brewery bunch of jokers there are running the government at the most critical time in a generation for the country.
— Ed Miliband (@Ed_Miliband) December 5, 2017
Mr Varadkar told the Cabinet earlier today that the Government’s core position on the Border will not change, although he and Tánaiste Simon Coveney are understood to have added that the language from Dublin will be conciliatory in the coming days.
The proposed text that the Government believed had been agreed by Britain and the European Union would have seen the British guarantee no changes to the Border after Brexit by pledging to keep “regulatory alignment” between the North and the South.
But a DUP backbench rebellion on Monday scuppered plans by the British prime minister, Theresa May, to sign off on the agreement with the European Commission to move on to the next phase of the Brexit talks, after next week’s summit. Conservative MPs on both sides of the Brexit debate also rejected the proposal.
Varadkar accuses May of reneging
Mr Varadkar has said that although the wording in the agreement on the Border that was reached between officials – but that Ms May did not sign off on – could change, the meaning of the text must not. On Monday evening he effectively accused the British prime minister of reneging on an agreed position.
The Irish Times understands the key parts of the agreed text were as follows: “The UK remains committed to protecting North-South co-operation and a guarantee to avoiding a hard border. The UK’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship.
“Should this not be possible, the UK will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland. In the absence of agreed solutions, the UK will maintain full alignment with the internal market, customs union and protection of the Good Friday agreement.”
It is understood no clarity was provided at the Cabinet meeting about whether Dublin was aware if Ms May had secured the backing of the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, before details of the deal emerged.
The DUP’s leader at Westminster, Nigel Dodds, said his party did not receive the proposals until late on Monday morning. “We understand this was due in part to delays caused by the Irish Government and the EU negotiating team. Upon immediate receipt of that text we indicated to senior [British] government representatives that it was clearly unacceptable in its current form.”
Irish Government sources have said that now the shape of the proposed agreement has entered the public domain it will be politically unacceptable for Dublin to back down on its contents. It is also understood it was suggested at Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting that the latest stage of the Brexit talks could continue into the new year.
EU leaders were expected to decide at the European Council summit on December 14th and 15th if “sufficient progress” had been made on citizens’ rights, the so-called divorce bill and Irish issues to allow talks to proceed. The next phase will focus on a post-Brexit transition period and the future EU-UK trading relationship. One Minister said that if no decision is taken at the December summit, negotiations can continue into the new year.
Ms May, who has said she will return to Brussels before the end of the week, was due to speak to Ms Foster and to Sinn Féin’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, on Tuesday.
Balance of power
At Westminster Mr Dodds warned the Irish Government “that by continuing its aggressive stance they are in danger of delivering for themselves the very outcomes that they said they want to avoid”. But he added: “We don’t want to see the talks fail, and we don’t want to see an outcome where there’s no deal.”
Speaking on his way into the Cabinet meeting where the fallout from the sudden collapse of the deal was discussed, Mr Coveney said: “Of course we need to listen to the DUP – they’re an important part of Northern Ireland politics – but we can’t have one political party that decides what’s acceptable and what’s not for the Irish and British governments, and indeed for the EU negotiating team, because they happen to hold the balance of power in Westminster.” – Additional reporting by the Guardian, the Press Association and Reuters