The DUP and Theresa May have appeared to move closer, with the prime minister offering hope to Nigel Dodds that she will now seek legally binding changes to the Irish backstop and the DUP scaling back its criticism of her.
During exchanges in the Commons there was a degree of restraint from DUP speakers which had been absent over recent weeks as the party vigorously campaigned to defeat Mrs May’s “toxic” proposal for a deal with the EU which could see Northern Ireland stay closer to the EU than the rest of the UK.
During an update to the Commons on how she hopes to secure a deal with the EU after last week’s crushing defeat of her initial deal, Mrs May gave no indication that she is switching towards appealing to MPs supportive of a softer Brexit.
She also ruled out delaying leaving the EU by extending Article 50 or endorsing a second EU referendum.
In an upbeat question to the prime minister, Mr Dodds began by thanking Mrs May for meeting him and recognising there are “core issues” with the Withdrawal Agreement.
The DUP’s Parliamentary leader said: “Can I take it from what the PM has said that she is really serious now, in terms of getting a consensus that can get this through the House, with the necessary legal changes to the Withdrawal Agreement?”
“Yes,” said Mrs May. “Obviously what I want to do is to identify the way forward in relation to dealing with the issues that have been raised by the backstop – I’ve referenced the two key issues on its potential permanency and the impact on the Union in my statement – and find the best way we can resolve those issues that will command support from this House.”
The reference to the potential for the backstop being time-limited – rather than being ditched altogether, as the DUP would prefer – chimed with comments from DUP MP Jim Shannon last week when he told the News Letter that he thought the party could consider a backstop for up to two years.
The Irish government has, however, given no indication that it would accept such a compromise, arguing that the whole purpose of the backstop – to act as an insurance policy to retain a soft border if all other options fail to do so – would be negated by it being anything other than open ended.
In a statement after his exchanges with Mrs May in the chamber, Mr Dodds said that in recent days, the DUP had undertaken “good engagement with the prime minister” and that it was “encouraging to see that the core issues which led to the House rejecting the withdrawal agreement are being focused upon in a really serious manner”.
The North Belfast MP added: “The backstop is the problem and that is where the focus must lie.”
Sinn Fein TD David Cullinane said that the refusal of Mrs May to rule out a no-deal Brexit “brings into sharp focus the unpreparedness of the Irish government for such an event”. He added: “Instead of a Plan B we got a rehash of previous statements and a commitment to inclusivity that is two years to late.”
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: “Today’s statement proves only one point – that the British state is in chaos. Boxed into a corner, the prime minister is running out of time and running out of options; clinging to the DUP to help her hold on to power.”