Downing Street has rowed back from a major Brexit u-turn after claiming this morning Northern Ireland could stay in the customs union.
The Government has always insisted the UK – including Northern Ireland – will leave the customs union after Brexit, but there will be no hard border with Ireland.
In a briefing with journalists, a Downing Street spokesman was asked to respond to comments from DUP leader Arlene Foster about the region’s future trading relationship with Ireland after Brexit.
There seemed to have been a significant change in Government policy when the spokesman replied: “I think that’s a matter for negotiation. Our position on Northern Ireland has been set out in the papers and we need to continue to negotiate to find an innovative way forward.
When asked if it was possible Northern Ireland could stay in the customs union, the spokesman said: “That would be a matter for negotiation.”
After this story was published, a Downing Street source said there is no change to the Government position, and the comments were about the Northern Ireland issue in general. Below is the transcript:
Reporter: “Does the Prime Minister agree with Arlene Foster that Northern Ireland must stay in the Customs Union post-Brexit?”
Downing Street: “Again, I think that’s a matter for negotiation. Our position on Northern Ireland has been set out in the papers and we need to continue to negotiate to find an innovative way forward.”
Reporter: “So it’s possible it could stay?”
Downing Street: “Again, that would be a matter for negotiation.”
The future of the Northern Ireland/Ireland border is one of the sticking points in the first phase of Brexit negotiations between the UK and the EU.
The UK vowed not to introduce any new physical infrastructure to the border - even if a different customs arrangement is in operation - in a position paper published in the summer.
But politicians from the Republic want further assurances there will be no hard border after Brexit, with Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney insisting EU leaders would not give the green light for the phase two negotiations to begin at their summit in December unless there was progress on the issue.
Coveney said: “We have move to phase two on the basis of a credible road map or the parameters around which we can design a credible road map to ensure that it doesn’t happen.
“The truth is that if we see regulatory divergence between the two jurisdictions on the island of Ireland it is very hard to see in that scenario how you avoid hard border checks. So we need progress on this issue in the context of the regulatory divergence issues.
“I hope and expect that we can get that by December so that we can all move on.
“If we can’t, then I think there is going to be a difficulty coming up.”