Brexit: Johnson struggles to secure DUP backing for deal
‘Big move’ on political consent for customs and regulation fails to sway Foster and Dodds
British prime minister Boris Johnson: ‘We’re on the Hillary Step going strong for the summit, but it is shrouded in cloud.’ Photograph: Getty
British prime minister Boris Johnson’s hopes of securing a new withdrawal agreement at the European Council were in the balance on Wednesday night as he struggled to win the support of the DUP for the deal.
A 10-minute phone call between Mr Johnson and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on Wednesday morning produced what sources close to the talks described as a “big move” on the issue of political consent in Northern Ireland for the proposed arrangements on customs and regulation.
But DUP leader Arlene Foster and deputy leader Nigel Dodds told Mr Johnson that the move did not go far enough, so that talks in Brussels were put on hold while Downing Street continued to negotiate with the DUP.
At a meeting of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, Mr Johnson compared the state of the negotiations to the final stage of climbing Mount Everest.
“We’re on the Hillary Step going strong for the summit, but it is shrouded in cloud,” he said.
The two-day meeting of the European Council is due to start at 3pm on Thursday but although Donald Tusk has published an agenda, he has not yet determined when each topic will be discussed. This opens up the possibility that the discussion of Brexit could be postponed until Friday morning.
Mr Johnson’s government confirmed on Wednesday that Parliament will sit on Saturday, when any deal that is agreed would be put to a “meaningful vote”. If it passes, the prime minister will be freed from his obligation under the Benn Act to request from the EU a three-month delay to Brexit.
DUP MP Sammy Wilson said any arrangement that would see Northern Ireland follow EU regulations for goods and create a de facto customs border in the Irish Sea must be subject to “cross-community consent” under the Belfast Agreement.
“UK and EU negotiators, who have ad nauseam pontificated about the need to respect the agreement, have no business interfering in the processes of consent as currently set out. The government and the EU’s commitment to uphold the Belfast Agreement will soon be put to the test,” he said.
The deal being negotiated in Brussels would mean Northern Ireland remains aligned with the EU for the regulation of goods. And although it would leave the EU customs union with the rest of the United Kingdom and enjoy any benefits of new British trade deals, it would be treated for administrative purposes as if it remained in the European customs union.
Mr Johnson’s original proposal would have made the arrangements on regulation and customs subject to approval in advance by the Northern Ireland Assembly, which would have to be renewed every four years. Under the Belfast Agreement, important decisions in the Assembly can require a majority of votes from representatives of each community, giving the DUP and Sinn Féin an effective veto.
Mr Varadkar has said consistently that neither community should have a veto on the proposed arrangements but British sources said that requiring a simple majority in the Assembly was not the answer.
Brexit secretary Steve Barclay on Wednesday ruled out seeking a short, technical extension to allow more time to work out the details of any deal.
“I think it is important that we leave on October 31. I think the House has, through the Benn legislation and the Cooper legislation, shown its ability to legislate in a quick manner. I think many of these issues have been discussed,” he told MPs.
“I think the important thing is, when I listen to the voices of business, and many constituents and citizens, they want to get Brexit done, they want the country to move forward. That is the opportunity we have.”