The Democratic Unionist party has given a guarded response to Boris Johnson’s apparent U-turn on the Irish border, saying it will judge any Brexit deal on how it affects Northern Ireland’s long-term economic and constitutional interests.
In a statement on Friday night Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, reiterated the party’s opposition to the backstop but did not criticise the prime minister’s reported acceptance that there could not be a customs border on the island of Ireland.
“The DUP has always indicated that the United Kingdom must leave the EU as one nation and in so doing that no barriers to trade are erected within the UK,” said Foster, warning against any measure that would “trap” Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market or customs union.
She vowed to use the party’s “pivotal” influence at Westminster – it has 10 MPs and holds sway over some Conservative party Brexiters – to block any deal that violated the UK’s constitutional integrity.
However, the statement also recognised “the need to be flexible and look at Northern Ireland-specific solutions”,
leaving the door open to a possible compromise between Downing Street and Brussels.
Ian Paisley, one of the party’s most ardent Brexiter MPs, said that the DUP would vote down any deal it did not like, but did not pre-emptively condemn Downing Street’s apparent backtracking.
Rival unionists, however, pounced on the reports.
Jim Allister, the leader of the Traditional Unionist Voice party, said: “If the proposals we’re beginning to hear about are correct it would totally disintegrate that economic unity … No matter how you dress it up, that is a fundamental assault upon our position within the United Kingdom.”
Jim Nicholson, an Ulster Unionist party (UUP) former MEP, said the region could be left on the “window ledge” of the union. “I fear that Northern Ireland is being offered up by Boris Johnson as the sacrificial lamb to save Brexit for the rest of the UK, the European Research Group and especially English nationalists.”
Another obstacle to any Brexit deal is the lack of a functioning Stormont assembly and executive.
Unionist and nationalist parties voiced scepticism on Friday that they could break the region’s 998-day political impasse.
Any Brexit deal is expected to require democratic consent for Northern Ireland’s continued alignment with the EU’s single market in goods, a conundrum with no obvious solution if Stormont remains mothballed.
Almost 1,000 days on from the collapse of power-sharing, Sinn Féin and the DUP traded blame for the paralysis and unveiled no plans to restore devolution.
Robin Swann, the leader of the UUP, called the inability of Northern Ireland’s two biggest parties to share power an abject failure of politics. “Their toxic mixture of arrogance, disrespect and incompetence has led the country to where it is today,” he said.
Stormont collapsed in January 2017 over a botched renewable heating initiative, the so-called cash for ash scandal. The biggest obstacle to the restoration of power-sharing is an Irish language act.
Colum Eastwood, the leader of the moderate nationalist SDLP, said there was negligible progress despite urgency over Brexit and atrophying public services. “The cold truth is that we are no closer to Irish-language legislation now than we were three years ago. We are facing a national emergency on this island as a no-deal Brexit draws nearer.”
The murder of the journalist Lyra McKee in April by dissident republicans galvanised British and Irish officials to shepherd parties into talks at Stormont, with all sides expressing concern at armed groups filling the political void.
Talks stalled amid mistrust between the DUP and Sinn Féin. Not even the imminent decriminalisation of abortion on 22 October – unless the assembly reconvenes before that date persuaded the anti-abortion DUP to return.
Naomi Long, the leader of the Alliance party, called the political stalemate “shameful”. A campaign group, We Deserve Better, is due to hold a protest outside Stormont on Sunday.
The gloom in Belfast contrasted with hope in Brussels after British and EU negotiators got the green light to intensify talks to try to hammer out a Brexit deal.