Theresa May must abandon her commitment to an Irish border backstop in her Brexit deal if she wants the support of the DUP, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has warned.
It comes after the UK and EU agreed a draft political framework outlining how trade, security and other issues will work post-Brexit.
Significantly for Northern Ireland, the 26-page political declaration refers to the possible use of technology in ensuring a frictionless Irish border after the UK leaves the bloc.
Appealing to the prime minister to change course and ditch the much-maligned backstop, DUP MP Sir Jeffrey told the Commons yesterday: “It is now clear the EU are beginning to accept that there are alternative arrangements that can be put in place without the need for the backstop.
“I would say to the prime minister, if she wants to have the support of my party for the withdrawal agreement, then we need to see an end of the backstop, and those alternative arrangements put in place.”
The document states that the UK and EU will make use of “all available facilitative arrangements and technologies” to avoid a hard border.
They also state a “determination” to replace the Irish border backstop solution with a subsequent agreement that establishes “alternative arrangements” for ensuring the absence of a hard border.
However, DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson dismissed the document as an “aspirational agreement of convenience”, highlighting that while the withdrawal agreement is legally binding, the political declaration is not.
The East Antrim MP asserted that the text had been drafted simply to help the PM in parliament, where she faces stiff opposition to her draft deal from many sides of the Commons.
He added: “This political declaration is a short-term document which has been agreed by politicians, many of whom will be up for re-election within months and may possibly not even be in position when the time comes to cash-in on its commitments.
“The Government needs to recognise that there is no enthusiasm for the withdrawal agreement across all sides of the House of Commons. The prime minister must accept that it is not a pure choice for MPs between her Withdrawal Agreement and a so-called ‘no deal’ rather it is time to work for a better deal.”
Speaking in the Commons yesterday, Mrs May told Sir Jeffrey that neither the UK Government nor the EU wanted to see the backstop being triggered.
She added that the best way to ensure that is to get the future relationship in place, adding that she would be “happy to discuss” the potential alternative arrangements set out in the declaration.
Meanwhile, chairman of the NI Affairs Committee, Andrew Murrison asked the PM who would assess whether the alternative arrangements can be used instead of the backstop.
Mrs May replied that if the UK entered the backstop but believed alternative arrangements were ready, the matter could be discussed in the UK-EU joint committee set up in the withdrawal deal.
“It could also be put through the arbitration panel ... and would be up to them to determine”, she added.