At a Policy Exchange fringe meeting at Tory conference, Arlene Foster has just ruled out any regulatory checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain that extend beyond agriculture, eliminating one of the possible Brexit compromises. She did say that she’d be prepared to consider a time limit on the backstop. But she thought that Leo Varadkar wouldn’t even be prepared to entertain this.
Foster made clear that she could never accept a customs border within the United Kingdom. She argued that would be unacceptable on both constitutional and economic grounds, highlighting that Northern Ireland does far more trade with Great Britain than it does with the Republic of Ireland. She was also clear that she wasn’t interested in any kind of dual customs status for Northern Ireland, that would see it as a kind of special economic zone in both the UK and EU customs territories.
On regulation, she indicated that she was prepared to see the island of Ireland treated as a single unit for agriculture, building on existing precedents. She was firm, though, that she would not accept any regulatory checks in between Northern Ireland and Great Britain that extended beyond agriculture. She said that this was the DUP position and that wouldn’t change as their whole purpose was to defend the Union.
Foster was highly critical of Theresa May, saying that she should have been asked more often if she trusted her. She accused May of trying to bounce the DUP into accepting something that would have been ‘injurious’ to Northern Ireland. She did, though, stress that she wanted a deal—distancing herself from Kate Hoey who said she wouldn’t vote for the withdrawal agreement even with the backstop taken out. She said that the level of integration in agriculture, and particularly the dairy sector, meant that a deal would be much better for Northern Ireland than no deal. In a sign of the importance of the meeting, a key member of Boris Johnson’s Downing Street team could be seen listening carefully to Foster’s every word.
It now seems that the only hope for a Brexit compromise is a time limit on the backstop. But, as Foster herself said, it is hard to imagine Dublin going for that, particularly without any guarantees on what would happen at the end of that period. This is particularly the case given how clear Foster was on how she couldn’t accept any kind of customs border in the Irish Sea and how regulatory checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain for anything other than agriculture were total anathema to the DUP.