Guardian News and Media / London
The Democratic Unionist party is to continue intensive talks to try to reach an agreement to allow it to back Theresa May’s Brexit deal, with discussions focusing on domestic legal guarantees that Northern Ireland will have no regulatory divergence with the rest of the UK.
Downing Street is hopeful that the support of the DUP is key to unlocking the backing of many Conservative Brexiters when May brings her deal to the House of Commons for the third time.
The DUP’s Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds, said discussions were “friendly and constructive” at a Cabinet Office summit with Cabinet ministers, including May’s de-facto deputy David Lidington, the Environment Secretary Michael Gove and the Chancellor Philip Hammond, sparking speculation that a financial incentive for Northern Ireland could be part of the negotiations.
Dodds said Hammond had been present at the meeting to discuss the role of HMRC, customs and regulations and denied it had been to discuss extra spending.
“I would not read anything in that the chancellor was there other than he is a senior member of the government who is clearly involved in many of the issues we are talking about,” Dodds said.
“We are not discussing cash in these discussions, this is about Brexit and how we protect the future of the United Kingdom and protect Northern Ireland’s economic and political future.” Talks are expected to continue into the weekend and are likely to cover the role of any future Northern Ireland assembly if the Irish backstop were used – one of the issues senior DUP leaders have asked for further clarification about. Ministers are aware the DUP will try to exact maximum concessions.
Dodds has been particularly vocal that May’s government has not faithfully implemented what was agreed and included in paragraph 50 of the joint report in December 2017, which stated the assembly would have a veto over any new regulatory difference.
“A lot will depend on what the government is able to do to provide those guarantees that are necessary to assuage our concerns,” Dodds said after the meeting.
“We have pointed previously to our concerns that the government has deleted so far the paragraph 50 of the December joint report, which gave a lock and a provision for Northern Ireland in terms of what might happen in the backstop and the overall situation of the economic integrity of internal market of the United Kingdom.”
One former Cabinet minister said in order for the ERG to climb down and support May’s deal at the third time of asking, “there’s an unlock requirement – and that’s the DUP – and their primary concern is that they will be separated from us”.
Options under discussion include inserting into domestic law, perhaps as part of the withdrawal agreement implementation bill, the promise that Northern Ireland would be given a veto on any new barriers in the Irish Sea.
The government promised a “strong role” for the currently defunct Stormont assembly if the Brexit backstop was triggered, in a document setting out reassurances ahead of the first meaningful vote.
Dodds said at the time that the promises were “cosmetic and meaningless” and that the proposals made it plain Stormont would never be able to “override” the backstop as it would be part of an internationally binding treaty.