Foster: Irish Sea border backstop is unacceptable

By Greg Heffer, political reporter

A senior DUP MP has accused Theresa May of a “total betrayal” amid suggestions a plan for a customs border down the Irish Sea could yet be included in a Brexit divorce deal.

East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson attacked the prime minister following the emergence of a leaked letter from Mrs May to DUP leader Arlene Foster and her deputy Nigel Dodds.

In extracts published by The Times, the prime minister’s letter refers to EU demands for the proposed Brexit backstop arrangement to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

This would apply if a future EU-UK trade relationship failed to avert a hardening of the frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The prime minister has been pushing to agree a UK-wide backstop arrangement, which would see the whole UK remain in an effective customs union with the EU, after rejecting Brussels’ proposal of a Northern Ireland-only solution.

However, in the leaked letter, it is revealed Mrs May admitted to the DUP that the EU is still proposing a Northern Ireland-only backstop arrangement alongside a UK-wide solution.

The prime minister wrote: “They want to maintain a Northern Ireland-only ‘backstop to the backstop’ in case the future negotiations are unsuccessful.

“I am clear that I could not accept there being any circumstances or conditions in which that ‘backstop to the backstop’, which would break up the UK customs territory, could come into force.

“That is why it is critical that the provision for a UK-EU joint customs territory is legally binding in the Withdrawal Agreement itself, so that no ‘backstop to a backstop’ is required.”

Arlene Foster speaks during day three of the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham
Image:DUP leader Arlene Foster said the letter 'raises alarm bells'

According to The Times, the DUP have taken Mrs May’s words to mean a Northern Ireland-only backstop arrangement will still be included in the legal text of the UK’s divorce deal with the EU, despite her assurance she will not allow it to “come into force”.

Mrs Foster told the newspaper: “The prime minister’s letter raises alarm bells for those who value the integrity of our precious Union and for those who want a proper Brexit for the whole of the UK.

“It appears the prime minister is wedded to the idea of a border down the Irish Sea with Northern Ireland in the EU single market regulatory regime.”

Mr Wilson told Sky News the prime minister is guilty of a “total betrayal” and had gone back on “the promises she made”.

He added: “If a deal emerges shaped on the contents of the prime minister’s letter, DUP MPs and our allies will not support it. The prime minister knows the consequences, she now needs to reconsider.”

DUP politician Sammy Wilson
Image:Mr Wilson said the PM had gone back on 'the promises she made'

Jeremy Wright, a cabinet minister and former attorney general, tried to calm tensions with the minority government’s partners.

He told Sky News: “There will not be a deal where we accept a border down the Irish Sea, and that’s the reassurance we can offer to the DUP and frankly, everyone else in this country, who’d be concerned about that situation, were it ever to arise.”

Cabinet minister Jeremy Wright promises the UK will not accept a border down the Irish Sea.

"That’s the reassurance we can offer to the DUP and everyone else in this country who’d be concerned about that situation – were it ever to arise."

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— Sky News Politics (@SkyNewsPolitics) November 9, 2018

It comes after International Trade Secretary Liam Fox challenged Mrs May to ensure the UK’s ability to quit a backstop arrangement is a decision for the UK alone, rather than the result of a mutual agreement with Dublin and Brussels.

In the leaked letter, the prime minister also told the DUP she “would not accept being kept in a backstop arrangement indefinitely”, while it would be “totally unacceptable” for a time limit to the UK-wide backstop arrangement to then simply result in the Northern Ireland-only solution being adopted.

In response to the emergence of the letter, a Downing Street spokesman said: “The prime minister’s letter sets out her commitment, which she has been absolutely clear about on any number of occasions, to never accepting any circumstances in which the UK is divided into two customs territories.

“The government will not agree anything that brings about a hard border on the island of Ireland.”