The paradox of the unstoppable force of Brexit and the DUP’s immovable intransigence may be resolved within days amid reports of a looming showdown between the British Prime Minister and the DUP.
DUP leader Arlene Foster has rejected the British prime minister’s proposals for a Brexit withdrawal deal after a leaked letter from the Tory leader spoke of the North’s “unique circumstances” which she said “could require specific alignment solutions in some scenarios”.
That comment was in regard to new trade regulations which could apply differently in the North of Ireland than in Britain, something which is anathema to unionists.
The future of the Westminster confidence and supply deal agreed between the two parties 18 months ago is said to under threat once again. That could leave May requiring support from opposition MPs in order to pass legislation at Westminster.
Although the letter published by the Times included assurances from Mrs May that she would not accept any Brexit deal which would “break up the UK customs territory”, Mrs Foster insisted the correspondence raised “alarm bells for those who value the integrity of our precious union [British rule in the north of Ireland]”.
In her letter, Mrs May described the backstop, which experts believe would likely amount to little more than the checks on agricultural goods that are already in place, is “an insurance policy that no-one in the UK or the EU wants or expects to use”.
But the frequent portrayal of potential new regulations as a ‘border down the Irish Sea’ means the DUP will not back the deal in Westminster.
“No unionist would be able to support that,” Mrs Foster declared. “In other words we (Northern Ireland) will have a different regulatory system from the rest of the United Kingdom, and essentially there’s going to be a border down the Irish Sea.”
The DUP leader said Ms May would also have “a job of work” getting her cabinet to back her proposals in the context of the “mathematics” of Westminster. She said the Tory leader now needed to decide whether she wanted to pursue her proposals without the support of the DUP’s ten MPs.
Sinn Fein Brexit spokesman Mairtin O Muilleoir said the British government needed to meet its commitments to a backstop and no hard border “rather than promises to the DUP”.
“The fact is that Theresa May signed up to the Irish backstop in December and that remains the bottom line in order to prevent a hard border and safeguard our political and economic stability now and for the future,” he said.
“It cannot be negotiated downwards. It cannot be watered down or bargained off. It must be built on to ensure our rights are protected and translated into legally operable and binding text as part of any withdrawal agreement.
“The integrity of our peace process is at stake and the onus is on the Dublin government and the EU 27 to ensure there is no resiling from the backstop and no return to a hard border on our island.”
SDLP Brexit spokeswoman Claire Hanna said it was unsurprising that the Tory leader was pushing back on the DUP’s “overzealous demands”.
“The SDLP and others made clear, in advance of the referendum and incessantly since, that the extreme Brexit that the DUP chase would have to have consequences,” she said.
Meanwhile, the 26 County government has warned that even if the Tory cabinet agrees exit plans in the coming days, the rest of the EU must also back them.
Reports have said that May might be able to win the support of her Tory cabinet -- only for a deal to be rejected by the EU. Fevered reports in London that senior ministers have been reviewing the text of the withdrawal agreement are said to have caused bewilderment.
Irish Tanaiste Simon Coveney urged caution. “Repeatedly people seem to make the same mistake over and over again, assuming that if the British cabinet agrees something, well, then that’s it then, everything is agreed.”
The legal detail of an agreement on a backstop - a contingency plan that would avoid a remilitarised border - remains the main obstacle to breaking the deadlock.
The 26 County Taoiseach Leo Varadkar appeared to wobble last week in the face of concerted Tory efforts to unpick the backstop agreement reached last December. In particular, a demand by Brexit minister Dominic Rabb for a three month time-limit and his supposed threat to resign appeared to unnerve the Taoiseach.
An indication by Varadkar that he would consider a review mechanism, that could allow the backstop to be scrapped, has been largely retracted. But there were test exchanges in the Dublin parliament when Mary Lou McDonald reminded the taoiseach of the triumphalist spin which Varadkar and his party heralded the December deal, and urged him to remain focused.
LETTER TO VARADKAR
There was also an open letter to the Taoiseach, signed by more than 1,000 northern nationalists, including many well known figures from sports and the arts, calling on him to ensure the rights of that community are protected as Brexit approaches.
Sinn Fein described it as a “powerful” intervention and showed it was time for people to make their voices heard.
“Almost twelve months ago the Taoiseach said that no citizen in the north would ever be left behind again,” said party Deputy Leader Michelle O’Neill.
“He stated his commitment to no hardening of the border on the island of Ireland. This is a time of jeopardy with the ramifications from Brexit, this is about people’s livelihoods and this is people’s rights.
“So I think today’s letter from wider civic nationalism to hold the Taoiseach to account is very powerful.
“It sends a very strong message that the nationalist community is not going to stand idly by and allow the British government to disrespect them when it comes to their rights.”