The DUP has reiterated that it is prepared to pull the plug on its support for the Tory government if Northern Ireland is treated differently to the rest of the UK in the Brexit talks.
The party has said it is “putting down a marker” amid reports that Downing Street is set to offer Brussels a special arrangement to deal with the Irish border, which would enable customs convergence between NI and the Republic on areas like agriculture and energy.
Sammy Wilson fired a warning shot at Theresa May on Thursday when he said any attempt to “placate Dublin and the EU” would put at risk the confidence and supply deal between the two parties.
Sinn Fein yesterday said they did not believe the DUP would follow through on its threat and accused Mr Wilson of “bluffing”.
However, the DUP has backed Mr Wilson’s pledge, with party colleague Jim Shannon MP stating: “There is no divergence within the party on this issue. We are putting a marker down and making it clear what our position is.”
Taioseach Leo Varadkar has threatened to veto Brexit negotiations moving on to the next phase unless more guarantees are given that there will be no return to a hard border.
But the DUP has called on the UK government to get tough with Dublin, with Ian Paisley MP urging Downing Street to stop “pussyfooting” around and “shake their cage” in EU talks.
Former DUP leader and first minister Peter Robinson also weighed in, saying “the south needs to wind its neck in”.
He said Dublin politicians had taken to “lecturing the UK,” doing “significant harm to north/south relations”.
“Sensible solutions can be found and positive outcomes are more likely to be reached if a spirit of friendship and mutual understanding exists,” he said.
The DUP entered into a £1bn confidence and supply agreement in June to prop up the minority Tory government.
There have been reports that DUP officials have met senior members of the government made it clear any effort to keep Northern Ireland in the single market or customs union would be “deeply destabilising” to that agreement.
DUP MP Mr Shannon said he was “confident” there would be no breakdown in the DUP-Tory pact, adding that he was “quite sure the Conservative Party thinks like we do on this issue”.
Sinn Fein’s Gerry Kelly yesterday he did not believe the DUP warning to Downing Street was serious.
He told the BBC: “There is a great fear of the Labour Party getting in from the DUP and I think if the bluff was called, you would soon find out what exactly was behind it.”
But Mr Shannon said the DUP’s stance was “not about bluffs or threats”.
“It is about an understanding between us and the Tories and ensuring our relationship can continue,” he added.
Speaking to the News Letter, Tory MP Dominic Grieve gave assurances that the DUP “had nothing to worry about”
The member for Beaconsfield added: “I don’t think anyone in the Conservative Party is prepared to accept a solution that would separate NI from the rest of the UK; it is completely unacceptable and impractical.
“I don’t believe there is a disagreement between the DUP and the Tory Party when it comes to this issue.”
A report in The Times newspaper on Thursday sparked controversy when it suggested that Downing Street was prepared to offer the EU a special arrangement, under which Northern Ireland would continue to observe the rules of the EU’s customs union to avoid a hard border with the Republic.
The paper said the government would devolve a package of powers to Northern Ireland to enable customs convergence on areas like agriculture and energy.
Mr Grieve declined to comment on the report in The Times, dismissing it as “speculation”.
The DUP has consistently opposed calls for Northern Ireland to be granted special status within the EU.
In the wake of The Times’ article, DUP leader Arlene Foster also vowed that the DUP “will not countenance” any arrangement that could lead to a new customs border being created in the Irish Sea.
Mrs Foster added: “There can be no arrangements agreed that compromise the integrity of the UK single market and place barriers, real or perceived, to the free movement of goods, services and capital between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.”
The UK government is hoping EU leaders will give the go-ahead for the second phase of the Brexit negotiations – including talks on a free trade deal – to begin at the European Council summit on December 14-15.
But the EU will only do this when it deems “sufficient progress” has been made on three areas – the so-called divorce bill, the rights of EU citizens in the UK after Brexit and the Irish border.
Border issues remain the biggest obstacle to a green light for talks to move to the next phase.