DUP leader insists ‘free flow’ with the Republic possible after Brexit

Arlene Foster described as ‘real leader of the Conservative Party’ by senior British Labour figure

DUP leader Arlene Foster has insisted Northern Ireland does not need to stay in the customs union after Brexit to achieve what she described as “free flow” with the Republic. Video: BBC's Andrew Marr Show


DUP leader Arlene Foster has insisted Northern Ireland does not need to stay in the customs union after Brexit to achieve what she described as “free flow” with the Republic.

The former first minister of Northern Ireland, whose party props up the British prime minister Theresa May’s minority government, called on the European Union to engage in a “pragmatic” manner as talks about the UK’s departure from the bloc continue.

“I think it’s very clear that the British people voted to leave the customs union. That was our position as well. We don’t believe that we have to stay in the customs union to have free flow between ourselves and the Republic of Ireland,” Ms Foster said.

“We believe that there are ways to deal with this and indeed back in August of last year, as you know, the Government put forward various proposals.

“We were disappointed there wasn’t the engagement from the European Union at that time. They were dismissed out of hand if you like. And what we would like to see from the European Union is less rhetoric and actually more engagement in relation to a pragmatic way forward, not just for Northern Ireland but for the whole nation as well.”

She was speaking on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday. Ms Foster was described as the “real leader of the Conservative Party” by another guest, the British Labour Party shadow chancellor John McDonnell.

Mr McDonnell predicted “the Conservatives are going to fall apart on this [Brexit]”.

He said: “What we have said very clearly, and I think actually quite a lot of the Conservatives are going to follow us in this, we remain within the customs union during the transition period, we want to negotiate a customs union, that will solve the Northern Ireland border problem, which I think is intractable.”

Mr McDonnell said there “will be movement from the EU” towards the Labour position. As well as the customs union plan, “we want to get as close to the single market as we possibly can”, he said.

Meanwhile, Mrs May has insisted she had the “determination to deliver Brexit” as she came under pressure from both wings of the Tory party to change course.

Eurosceptics urged Ms May to drop the proposal for a “customs partnership”, which they fear would tie the United Kingdom too closely to Brussels.

But pro-EU Tories pushed for Ms May to abandon her red lines and keep the United Kingdom in the single market, claiming she would have cross-party support in the House of Commons for such a move.

Elsewhere, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also risked unrest within his party over Labour’s position on Brexit ahead of a Lords vote on the issue.

Writing in the British Sun On Sunday, Ms May said she had an “absolute determination to make a success of Brexit, by leaving the single market and customs union and building a new relationship with EU partners that takes back control of our borders, our laws and our money”.

She said the United Kingdom was “making good progress towards that goal and we will carry on doing so with resolution in the months ahead”.

A decision on the Government’s preferred customs option has been postponed after Mrs May’s Brexit “war cabinet” failed to reach agreement.

A number of Cabinet ministers spoke out against the Ms May’s hybrid “customs partnership” model that would see Britain collect tariffs on behalf of the EU for goods destined for the block, with firms potentially claiming back a rebate if products remained in the United Kingdom on a lower-tariff regime.

The Sunday Telegraph quoted a Cabinet source saying it would be “unimaginable for the prime minister to press on with the hybrid model after it has been torn apart by members of her own Brexit committee”.

However, pro-EU Tories, seeking to capitalise on the lack of agreement in the Cabinet and a Lords victory on the customs union, pushed for Ms May to abandon her Brexit strategy and instead commit to a Norway-style approach within the European Economic Area (EEA) and European Free Trade Association (Efta).

Such a move would be unacceptable to many Brexit supporters because it would leave the United Kingdom expected to accept free movement, although its advocates claim Ms May would have some ability to impose conditions.

A Lords amendment that would require the Government to negotiate continued membership of the EEA could be put to a vote on Tuesday, but Labour peers have reportedly been told to abstain.

Labour’s Lord Alli, one of the signatories to the amendment, accused the party leadership of being “paralysed by indecision”.

He told the Observer: “This is complete cowardice. There is no point in being in politics to abstain, If you stand in the middle of the road someone is going to knock you over.”

– PA