Brexiteer Iain Duncan Smith has claimed the dispute over the Irish border that has halted Brexit talks has been cooked-up for political gain as he signalled the UK could walk away from talks with the EU.
The ex-Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith told the BBC that “this Irish stuff was not at this state some months ago” as he suggested Brussels needed to “back off” or the UK will “get on with other arrangements which are not going to be beneficial to you” - effectively a ‘hard’ Brexit with no fresh UK-EU trade deal.
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which is propping up the Tories in Westminster, has refused to back a proposal for regulatory ‘alignment’ between southern Ireland, which is to remain in the EU, and Northern Ireland, which is to leave the bloc with the rest of the UK.
With no resolution yet to ease Ireland’s fears of the return of a ‘hard’ border, it means the Republic can effectively veto the ‘divorce’ package - which needs to be agreed before moving on to trade talks.
In the BBC interview, Duncan Smith, a champion of Brexit, suggested the politicians in the south have “suddenly laid this on”.
He said: “You know this Irish stuff was not at this state some months ago, now it’s suddenly become an issue because the Irish - for political reasons internally, presidential elections, disputes between two elements of the same party - they suddenly laid this on.
“And the EU, instead of saying to them, pull back for a second, let’s deal with this when we get to the trade arrangements, which would be logical sense, has actually backed them in this process.”
Fears over the Irish border had been raised during the referendum campaign, but were largely drowned out.
Ex-Prime Minster Sir John Major, one of Duncan Smith’s predecessors as Tory leader, had warned repeatedly before the vote that Brexit could mean border control is introduced between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
He also suggested the UK should walk away from the Brexit negotiations if the EU does not change its position.
Asked whether he was warning that Brussels should “back off or we’ll walk”, he replied: “Well, I think the statement is even more straightforward.
“You need to change this process and to back off otherwise we get on with other arrangements which are not going to be beneficial to you.
“We would rather have the trade deal but not at any price. Our intention is to be treated as equals not as supplicants and therefore we have given every assurance under the sun to the Irish, everybody knows that we are not going to end up with a hard border in Ireland, we are never going to do it. Ireland has always had a special place in the UK. They know what, we know that.”
Brexit Secretary David Davis today told MPs any special customs deal agreed for Northern Ireland would extended to the rest of the UK – echoing the suggestion of Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson.
That led the DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds to soften his position and admit there may need to be “regulatory alignment” with the EU in some areas – meaning the deal could be back on the table.
The concessions could be enough to allow the EU to vote in favour of sufficient progress in the talks at a summit next week, and allow the negotiations to move on to trade.