Unionist leaders have warmly welcomed the Prime Minister’s pledge that there will be no regulatory or customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK post-Brexit.
In a frank address to EU leaders at Downing Street on Friday, a defiant Theresa May vowed she would not assent to Northern Ireland being “permanently separated economically from the rest of the UK by a border down the Irish Sea”.
The remarks will have come as music to the ears of her partners in government, the DUP, who have repeatedly and emphatically stated that any move which puts trade barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is a red line for the party.
Speaking after Mrs May’s statement, DUP leader Arlene Foster said the Prime Minister has made it clear that she “will not countenance any new regulatory or customs barriers” in the Irish Sea.
Mrs May clarified that, under her alternative backstop proposals, “no new regulatory barriers should be created between NI and the rest of the UK unless the NI Assembly and Executive agree”.
In response, Mrs Foster warned that her party would veto any attempt in the Assembly “to undermine the economic or constitutional integrity of the UK”.
Delivering her short speech at Number 10, Mrs May said the EU must treat the UK with “respect” in the Brexit talks, adding that for EU leaders to reject her Chequers blueprint with no alternative at this “late stage of negotiations” was “not acceptable”.
Mrs Foster said the Prime Minister “is right to stand firm in the face of disrespectful, intransigent and disgraceful behaviour by the European Union”, adding: “ The United Kingdom will not be treated in such a manner.”
Meanwhile, UUP leader Robin Swann said unionists would be “reassured” by the Prime Minister’s commitment to the union.
He added: “The single sentence – ‘I will not overturn the result of the referendum nor will I break up my country’ – indicates that the Prime Minister has grasped fully what the result of agreeing to any deal which involved ‘special status’ or a separate set of arrangements for Northern Ireland would really mean.
“As the UUP has said before, Brexit cannot and must not be used to establish an internal border within the United Kingdom of any form.
“Unionists will be reassured by the Prime Minister’s comments and her commitment to ensuring that Northern Ireland will not be used as a bargaining chip in the Brexit negotiations.
However SDLP leader Colum Eastwood hit out at what he dubbed the PM’s “total belligerent attitude” to the EU.
The Foyle MLA added: “In failing to adequately respond to the mess of their own making, the UK Government have left the people of Northern Ireland in an extremely vulnerable position.
“With everything that has happened in the last two years the fundamentals have not changed. If the UK insist on having a different trading regime and product standards, it is inevitable that we will end up with a border somewhere.”