Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, has voiced doubts about the idea of a “double customs” plan for Northern Ireland in the first sign of resistance to Boris Johnson’s new Brexit proposals.
The British prime minister has put forward the idea that Northern Ireland could remain legally part of the UK customs area while in practice it would be part of the EU’s customs territory.
But Mr Dodds, speaking to Italian newspaper La Repubblica, hinted that the DUP would not find any such solution acceptable: “Northern Ireland must remain fully part of the UK customs union. And Boris Johnson knows it very well,” he said. “It cannot work because Northern Ireland has to remain fully part of the UK customs union.”
The reaction of the DUP could prove critical because Mr Johnson lacks a majority in the House of Commons and would almost certainly need the party’s 10 MPs to get a deal over the line. In addition, some hardline Eurosceptic Tory MPs in the influential “European Research Group” (ERG) are likely to be influenced by the DUP’s final response to any proposed deal.
On Friday night Owen Paterson, a Eurosceptic former cabinet minister, said that Northern Ireland being held in the customs union without Great Britain was a breach of the Belfast Agreement and would “store up problems in Northern Ireland” long after Brexit is achieved. Mr Dodds said on Twitter that Mr Paterson was “absolutely right”.
While Mr Dodds’ comments on Saturday do not represent an outright rejection of the deal, they will raise alarm in Downing Street where Mr Johnson’s team is far from complacent about getting a deal.
Nicky Morgan, culture secretary, said earlier on Saturday that the “mood music” appeared to be positive, even if there were more details still to be worked out.
Mrs Morgan told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: “After the meeting between the Irish Prime Minister and our Prime Minister on Thursday, there is no doubt that things do look promising.”
Brussels is this weekend holding last-ditch Brexit negotiations with Mr Johnson’s team aimed at preventing the UK from leaving the EU without a deal after a breakthrough in talks between the two sides sparked hopes of an agreement.
EU diplomats gave a green light to ramp up talks after Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, told them that the UK prime minister had shifted his position sharply on a series of central demands by the EU — sending sterling soaring against the dollar.
Mr Barnier told EU27 diplomats that the UK accepted there could not be a “border across the island of Ireland”, in sharp contrast to Britain’s previous proposals that entailed a new customs border.
He also said Mr Johnson had signalled a willingness to scrap a mooted veto for the Northern Irish Assembly on regulatory arrangements.
The European Commission said on Friday that “constructive” talks between Stephen Barclay, the UK’s Brexit secretary, and Mr Barnier had led to an agreement to “intensify discussions over the coming days”.
Downing Street still hopes to finalise a deal at the European Council meeting starting on Thursday.
If a deal were to be wrapped up by EU leaders in Brussels, Mr Johnson would then move quickly to try to win parliamentary approval at a special Commons sitting next Saturday, in what would be a moment of truth.
Mr Johnson’s team are drawing up plans to fudge the most controversial issue dogging the talks; whether Northern Ireland should be part of the EU customs union to avoid the need for a hard border with the Republic.
Officials close to the negotiations say Mr Johnson would keep Northern Ireland in the UK customs territory in legal terms, meaning it would benefit from any free trade deals struck with third countries, but in practical terms it would be part of the EU customs area.
Goods entering Northern Ireland would face customs and regulatory checks on the Irish Sea to allow them to move freely on to the Republic. British and EU officials would collect tariffs for the EU at ports in Northern Ireland and remit them to Brussels. Importers would have to claim a rebate where British tariffs were lower than those set by the EU.
On Friday Mr Johnson refused to elaborate on whether Northern Ireland would remain in the EU customs union after Brexit, but instead suggested his priority was to ensure that it could benefit from future trade deals.