The Democratic Unionist Party has warned it may withdraw its support for Theresa May’s government if Northern Ireland is treated as a separate customs and trading regime after Brexit.
DUP MP Sammy Wilson suggested any attempt to “placate Dublin and the EU” over the Irish border could mean its ten MPs no longer prop up the Tories at Westminster.
The party ratcheted up the pressure on Thursday amid attempts to avoid a deadlock over a potential “hard border” between the north and south of Ireland.
Reports had suggested the government was preparing to agree that trading relations in some areas, such as agriculture and energy, would remain harmonised between Northern Ireland and the EU after quitting the EU.
The border between EU-member Ireland and the British region of Northern Ireland will be the UK’s only land frontier with the bloc after Brexit, and Dublin fears a hard border could disrupt 20 years of delicate peace in Northern Ireland.
But the DUP could have created another hurdle before Brexit talks can move to negotiations on Britain’s future trade relationship with the EU and a possible two-year Brexit transition deal.
Wilson said in an interview with the BBC:
“If there is any hint that in order to placate Dublin and the EU, they’re prepared to have Northern Ireland treated differently than the rest of the UK, then they can’t rely on our vote.
“They have to recognise that if this is about treating Northern Ireland differently, or leaving us half in the EU, dragging along behind regulations which change in Dublin, it’s not on.”
DUP MP Ian Paisley urged the Republic of Ireland to take a more “mature” approach to Brexit.
“If the Republic of Ireland is going to keep shouting at our border and telling us that it is all doom and gloom and we are not going to get a proper relationship, that interferes in the negotiation process,” he told RTE.
“All of us, every constituent part, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, are leaving the EU. Don’t undermine our position and our sovereign integrity.”
Ireland has called on Britain to provide details of how it will ensure there is no “regulatory divergence” after Brexit that would require physical border infrastructure.
Ireland Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said on Thursday: “We are looking for significantly more clarity than we currently have from the British negotiating team.
“Hopefully we will make progress that will allow us to move on to Phase 2 in the middle of December. If it is not possible to do that, so be it.”
The Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) refused to comment on a report in The Times that British negotiators had put forward a proposal to devolve powers to Northern Ireland to enable “customs convergence” with the Republic in areas such as agriculture and energy in an attempt to break the deadlock.
The paper quoted sources in Dublin as saying there had been “movement” on the issue and confidence was growing that agreement could be reached in time for next month’s summit in Brussels.
Theresa May is desperately hoping EU leaders will give the go-ahead for the second phase of the negotiations – including talks on a free trade deal – to begin at the European Council summit on December 14-15.
She is due to travel to Brussels on Monday for talks with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in the hope of securing a declaration that “sufficient progress” has been made on divorce issues like the financial settlement and the Irish border.
The leaders of the remaining 27 EU states, including Irish premier Leo Varadkar, have a veto on triggering the second phase of talks, meaning May must be sure of support from Dublin for progress to be made.