DUP leader Arlene Foster has attempted to rubbish claims that her party would be open to a soft Brexit that kept the whole of the UK in a customs union with the EU.
The Times today quoted “leading figures” within the party indicating that the DUP could sign up to a Norway-style deal with a customs union if it removed the threat of the Northern Irish backstop.
The newspaper said it spoke to one unnamed DUP MP who claimed that they were prepared to look at any potential new relationship with the EU that ensured there was no customs or regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
But Mrs Foster has rejected the report as “inaccurate” and claimed it is an attempt to “cause division”.
According to the The Times, two senior sources in the DUP said that the party’s opposition to Mrs May’s deal was based purely on the scope of the Irish backstop.
The paper said the issue of a Norway-style deal has been raised in meetings between the DUP and senior government ministers as part of attempts to break the Brexit impasse.
One DUP MP is quoted as saying: “Our priority is to try and get the current withdrawal agreement altered but we recognise given the scale of the defeat this week that reviving it will be a challenge.
“If that cannot be done, we are going to have to look at other options and that could include a softer Brexit as long as it applied to the whole of the United Kingdom. We are open to discussions to try and find a way forward as long as it respects Northern Ireland as an integral part of the UK.”
The Times quoted another “senior DUP source” as saying: “If we are looking at a solution that encompasses the whole of the UK that would tick the unionist box.”
In a statement this morning, Mrs Foster said the report was “no doubt designed to undermine efforts to get the necessary changes to the withdrawal agreement”.
She added: “The Prime Minister is very clear on our position. We have been consistent that for us it is the backstop which needs to be dealt with.
“For the future we want an agreement which returns control of our money, our laws and our borders through a UK wide free trade arrangement with the EU.
“The story in the Times is an attempt to cause division. Such tactics are not new to us and as in the past will not succeed.”
DUP ASKED TO SPECIFY INACCURACIES
In light of Arlene Foster’s statement yesterday, the News Letter asked the DUP to clarify which parts of The Times article it deemed to be “inaccurate” specifically.
We also asked if Mrs Foster rejected the claim by one of her MPs, as quoted in the article, that the party may “look at other options and that could include a softer Brexit as long as it applied to the whole of the United Kingdom”.
We received no response from the party’s press office at the time of going to press.
However, in a conversation with the News Letter on Thursday, DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson said his party was not currently involved in discussions with the Government regarding a Norway-style Brexit, which would see the UK staying within two key European institutions: the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) and the European Economic Area (EEA).
He added: “The EU have made it quite clear a Norway-style deal would still require the backstop arrangement. Any deal which requires the backstop is not going to be considered by us.”
He also said he was opposed to the prospect of the UK remaining within a customs union with Brussels, adding: “What is the point of leaving the EU if we can’t negotiate our own trade deals?”
On Wednesday, DUP MP Jim Shannon told this paper that his party would be open to considering a two-year time-limit on the backstop, provided it was written into the withdrawal agreement.