Peter Foster, of the Daily Telegraph, who is closely aware of what is happening in London, writes:
“If the UK gets a standalone customs text in the exit treaty, then Mrs May can guarantee that her promise to leave Northern Ireland in the customs territory of a foreign power will be kept.
“Now that doesn’t solve all her problems, but it’s a key issue solved.
“Of course, it still leaves NI in the single market regulatory envelope, but the UK has basically already agreed to this, and to de-dramatised regulator checks.”
Tony Connelly, of RTE, who is close to what is happening in Dublin, tweeted: “Elements of a deal now coming into view, with bare bones UK-wide customs arrangement being stitched into the Withdrawal Agreement (as per @FT story) underpinned by a NI-specific backstop. Allows @theresa_may to say the latter will never be needed.”
He also said that: “Dublin now believes following news conference with [David] Lidington & Karen Bradley UK now more accepting of the [Joint Report]of last December ‘in full’.”
What this would all appear to mean is that the UK is pressing ahead with the Irish border backstop. Now it is all a bit complicated (including talk of a backstop to the backstop, which in essence is a way to ensure that provisions relating to Northern Ireland are permanent).
But nothing I have read has persuaded me that London is other than, at core, prepared to agree that Northern Ireland will always be entirely or largely in the European Union customs and regulatory space.
The only remotely good news from a unionist point of view is that the UK is trying insofar as possible to keep Northern Ireland in the same customs arrangement as the rest of the UK.
In other words, there will be no tariff barrier between the Province and Great Britain. This shows a level of determination to prevent an internal UK customs border, but there will be a regulatory one.
The BBC reporter John Campbell grilled the Brexit secretary Dominic Raab on this point, during the latter’s visit to Northern Ireland yesterday, and he declined to be specific on whether there might be a regulatory border (which rather suggests there will be one, and it is just a question of whether it will apply to all or most goods).
Those who defend a backstop say that it only kicks in if there is no other UK-EU deal that prevents a hard Irish land border, but that misses the point because Dublin and the EU will clearly only accept a deal that has the effect of keeping in Northern Ireland in the EU customs and regulatory zone.
What all this seems to confirm is that the UK will always be spineless in the face of anger from nationalist Ireland. London is (ultimately) determined to give greater assurance to a neighbouring jurisdiction (albeit of course a very close and important one that is physically adjacent to UK territory) than it is to its own territory, even under a party that prides itself as Conservative and Unionist.
Some experts say that a regulatory border doesn’t matter because the regulatory divergence between the UK and the EU will be minimal to non existent in any event but again, that is not the point.
It is the UK declaration of intent that matters, because it has crumbled in the face of Dublin’s unwavering firm line. It also means that Brexit has significantly weakened Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, even if it might be decades before the full implications of that become evident.
But Arlene Foster was reported this week as sounding optimistic on an EU deal, saying: “Goodness, we have been here on a number of occasions and I think we are close to a deal that will work for Northern Ireland, that is what we want.”
With all these various reports and contrasting signals, late last evening I phoned DUP numbers that I have and got Sammy Wilson MP, just before this paper went to press. This is some hours after he spoke to our reporter Stephen Gamble (see page 4).
He said that he had not been at the meeting with Mr Raab but the party did not have the detail on what is being proposed. If it was a regulatory border in the Irish Sea, the deal with the Tories would be over he said. Also, the prime minister would lose a raft of Brexiter Tory MPs and some Scottish Tories too.
“She won’t get it through,” he told me. “It is as simple as that.”
• Ben Lowry @BenLowry2 is News Letter deputy editor