Foster’s repeated call for ‘sensible deal’ hints at new mood of compromise

DUP knows a no-deal Brexit would be disastrous for party and for Northern Ireland

DUP’s Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds exit 10 Downing Street following meeting with Boris Johnson. Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA

DUP’s Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds exit 10 Downing Street following meeting with Boris Johnson. Photograph: Aaron Chown/PA

 

There were some indications in Northern Ireland on Wednesday that the North was heading into “I can’t believe it’s not the backstop” territory.

There is still considerable fog clouding what Boris Johnson, Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds might be doing to devise a resolution to the Brexit chaos and crisis but it did seem clear that the Tories and the DUP are trying to fashion a compromise that avoids a no-deal exit from Europe.

Foster expressed confidence this week that Johnson would not try to foist a Northern Ireland-only backstop on the North. But equally she rather surprisingly said she was “encouraged” by the British prime minister’s Dublin meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. She hoped these discussions would “lay the foundation for a way forward”.

In a statement of just 137 words she three times referred to the need for a “sensible deal” – a phrase that would appear to denote a willingness to compromise.

On Monday’s BBC Newsnight programme Nigel Dodds reiterated DUP opposition to the backstop. But then intriguingly Dodds added that there could be some “arrangements” if they were to benefit Northern Ireland, the Republic and the EU.

But any such “arrangements”, he added, would require the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which currently is kaput.

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Free trade

Then on Wednesday, South Down unionist Assembly member Jim Wells, who lost the DUP whip a year ago, told BBC Radio Ulster that work was being conducted on finding an agreement that would allow the free trade of agriculture products across the Border and deal with animal health issues on an all-island basis.

“It would be controlled by the people of Northern Ireland and not controlled by the bureaucrats in Europe . . . That is the crucial difference,” he said. It would be in line with EU rules but it was not a backstop and would not be the “major constitutional change that the backstop represents”.

There would be no issue as long it was under the jurisdiction of the Irish Government and the Northern Executive, he said.

But if this proposal was being examined as a way forward by the DUP, the British government and possibly Dublin why couldn’t the idea or arrangement be applied to other forms of North-South trade? Why, under a different name than a Northern Ireland-only backstop, could it not be used to allow an effective single market and customs arrangement to continue on the island of Ireland? An Irish solution to a Northern Irish and EU problem.

But Wells pointed out the backstop was toxic because the only way out of it was with the consent of the Irish State.

An obvious glitch here is that there is no Northern Executive. Another difficulty is the effective veto that the DUP and Sinn Féin can apply. So, were the Executive to be reformed, would this allow the DUP to agree in principle to the arrangement but in practice use its veto to block it? Sinn Féin hardly would be suckered into such a deal. At the very least it would require an Irish language act to get Stormont back up and running.

Dublin and Brussels aren’t getting over-excited but have also welcomed more “temperate” language from the DUP.

“If the British government work up these ideas into something substantive then there might be some scope here but at the moment they have come up with no way of evolving these ideas,” said one senior source.

It may all go nowhere. But there is a sense of compromise in the air, and it indicates a strong desire by Foster and Dodds to get off the hook of a possible no-deal Brexit which could be disastrous for both the DUP and Northern Ireland.

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