The Democratic Unionist party’s leader, Arlene Foster, has signalled it is ready to do a Brexit deal, indicating for the first time a willingness to accept a bespoke solution for Northern Ireland.
She was speaking just hours before she held an “unplanned” meeting with the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, amid signs of a Brexit thaw between Belfast and Dublin.
In a break with previous rhetoric where she has strongly opposed treating the region differently to the rest of the UK, Foster said the final deal would have to recognise Northern Ireland’s unique historical and geographical position and the fact it will be the UK’s only land border with the EU.
Asked by reporters if it was possible to see Northern Ireland-only solutions that would not affect the constitutional link with Great Britain, she replied: “Well I hope so.”
That, combined with other comments she made before a dinner with business executives in Dublin, will be seen as pushing the door ajar for a deal.
The 45-minute meeting with Varadkar was fitted it in unexpectedly afterwards. “They discussed Brexit and the need for the restoration of devolution [at Stormont],” said the DUP.
Foster reiterated the party’s opposition to the backstop that has continued ever since it was conceived as a fallback to prevent the re-emergence of a hard border on the island of Ireland, should trade talks following any Brexit deal fail to uphold the Good Friday Agreement.
She made clear that her idea of an acceptable Northern Ireland-only solution was different to mooted proposals for a Northern Ireland-only backstop, which she said “would bring about customs [checks] between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and that is unconstitutional and undemocratic”.
But she said the solution would recognise that Northern Ireland was unique and bespoke arrangements may be an option, something Sinn Féin has demanded since the referendum.
“What we want to see happening is a recognition that we are on an island. We recognise the unique history and geography, I think to go back to my language of 10 August,” she said.
“We have to recognise that we are in the UK and sometimes I think people forget that.”
She said her party was looking for a “sensible deal” and it never wanted to inflict no deal on the region.
“The presentation of the DUP as a ‘no deal’ party is wrong. People get very alarmed when they see that sort of rhetoric, We do want to see a deal but it has to be a deal that works for everybody,” she said.
The backstop has the support of industry and farmers, who have said that no deal could have disastrous outcomes for Northern Ireland. The Stormont economy department has said it could cost 40,000 jobs.
Echoing words of the party’s chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson earlier this week, she said the solution lay in a joint letter she co-authored with the late leader of Sinn Féin, Martin McGuinness, in August 2016, a document rarely referred to by the DUP in the past two years.
The letter could be characterised as a plea for a soft Brexit. It envisaged a deal that would ensure new arrangements did not disrupt the peace process and accommodated the “particular significance for the agri-food sector and animal health” in border regions.
It also noted it was critical that businesses were protected on the border and did not incur additional costs, suggesting the DUP could accept regulatory alignment if a Stormont assembly had a say in what EU rules would apply.
In a separate interview with RTE, Foster said the so-called Stormont lock – a promise to consult the Northern Ireland assembly on any no-deal arrangements – was being misrepresented as a veto on future EU regulations.
“We’re not looking for any control over the European Union, what we are looking for is control over what happens in Northern Ireland and I think that’s a very fair thing to search for,” she said.
The DUP is hoping a shift in its position will be met with a compromise by the EU and the Republic of Ireland.