Hopes of Brexit deal fade as Arlene Foster demands Theresa May changes tack on Irish border
Theresa May's hopes of striking a Brexit deal by the end of this week are hanging by a thread after Arlene Foster publicly rebuked the Prime Minister's strategy on the Irish border.
Mrs May had said she was "confident" of reaching an agreement with the EU by Friday that sufficient progress had been in the negotiations so far to move onto trade discussions in the New Year.
That was despite her talks with Jean-Claude Juncker ending in deadlock after DUP leader Ms Foster rejected proposals to maintain an invisible border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.
Under the plans - which had been agreed with the Irish government - Northern Ireland would maintain "regulatory alignment" with the Republic and the rest of the EU.
The Prime Minister had planned to return to Brussels as soon as tomorrow in order to finalise an agreement.
But those hopes were dashed after Mrs May failed to hold a planned phone call with Ms Foster - whose 10 MPs prop up the minority Tory government - in a bid to iron out their differences.
Instead, the DUP leader went on television to make clear her frustration - and to accuse the Government of withholding details of their plans at the request of Dublin.
She said: "The text landed with us late Monday morning, now that left is in a very difficult position. We had to look at the text, we had to try and understand what the ramifications of the text was, and when we had a chance to do that we realised that in no way could we sign up to that text because essentially it was making a red line down the Irish Sea.
"There's widespread agreement that we cannot break up the United Kingdom in order to satisfy an Irish government that will not take the bona fides of a statement from our own Prime Minister that nobody wants to see a hard border in Ireland.
"There have been reasons given to us as to why we didn't receive the text until late on. One of those reasons apparently was the Irish government wouldn't allow them to share that text and in many ways I can understand that. The important thing is, once we seen that text, we knew that it would not fly for Northern Ireland or for Scotland because when you start separating parts of the UK out, then it has ramifications in other places as well."
She added: "The Irish prime minister can be as unequivocal as he likes, we are also unequivocal in relation to these matters. This is no surprise to anyone, that I'm a unionist and I want to see the retention of the union for political reasons, but also for economic reasons as well. Our biggest market is with Great Britain. 72% of our goods that leave Belfast port go to Great Britain. Why in heaven's name would I cut off that market to look at a smaller market in the Republic of Ireland?
"We don't want to see a hard border, we want to have good relations with our next door neighbours in the Republic of Ireland, but we are not going to cut ourselves off from the rest of the United Kingdom.
"What is important is we now all have a very clear understanding of where we are. We must have a UK that keeps its integrity both constitutionally and economically as well."
In the Commons today, Brexit Secretary David Davis hinted that the Government wanted all of the UK - not just Northern Ireland - to maintain regulatory alignment with the EU.
He said: "The presumption of the discussion was that everything we talked about applied to the whole United Kingdom.
"Alignment isn’t harmonisation, it isn’t having exactly the same rules. It is sometimes having mutually recognised rules, mutually recognised inspection, all of that sort of thing as well. And that is what we are aiming for."
But a spokesman for the Prime Minister repeatedly refused to confirm that Mr Davis had been speaking on behalf of the Government when he made his remarks.
Meanwhile, former Tory leader and leading eurosceptic Iain Duncan Smith called on the Prime Minister to walk away from the Brexit talks if the EU refuses to reach a deal.
He told the BBC: "I think they have walked away from this process, this is the big difference. My view about this is that Brussels has laid one extra requirement after another. You know this Irish stuff was not at this state some months ago, now it's suddenly become an issue because the Irish for political reasons internally, presidential elections, disputes between two elements of the same party, they suddenly laid this on.
"The EU, instead of saying to them, pull back for a second, lets deal with this when we get to the trade arrangements which would be logical sense, has actually backed them in this process. I think they have wanted to see whether or not they could push the UK into binding itself in to EU regulations in advance of trade discussions. Now that is intolerable and I think the PM as I say for laudable reasons has bent over backwards to try and help the EU get to that point of trade, but not at any price."