DUP leader Arlene Foster has opened the door slightly for a potential Brexit breakthrough involving some form of special status for Northern Ireland, saying she may be open to any deal involving unique arrangements for the province.
Ms Foster hinted at the change in position during a visit to Dublin on Wednesday yesterday evening, saying while the backstop still has to go, there “needs to be a recognition we are on an island” together.
Speaking to reporters at the Intercontinental Hotel before a keynote behind-closed-doors speech to Dublin Chamber of Commerce, Ms Foster said it is vital Northern Ireland’s rights under the British constitution are upheld.
However, in a shift in position that follows claims in recent days Britain may be in favour of linking any Brexit breakthrough to the “consent mechanisms” in Northern Ireland, she said she may now be open to some special arrangements for the province.
Asked specifically if Northern Ireland-only solutions that do not affect the province’s constitutional position could help solve the stand-off, the DUP leader said:
“We recognise that, we recognise the unique history. But we also have to recognise that we’re in the United Kingdom and I think sometimes people forget that.”
Asked if she was prepared to accept solutions which would be unique to Northern Ireland, Ms Foster did not reject the proposal, instead saying there is a need to “recognise we’re on the island of Ireland separated from Great Britain by water, but at the same time we’re still part of the UK”.
The DUP leader said she is still firmly of the view the existing backstop contained in the UK-EU withdrawal agreement is not acceptable, and that it must be removed.
“Yes, I think the prime minister [Boris Johnson] has been quite clear the backstop is anti-democratic, it’s unconstitutional and needs to go. That is our position.”
However, when it was put to her that the backstop could be “tweaked” to suit DUP needs, she added: “Well, I think what we want to see is a sensible deal, a deal that works for us all, whatever that is called.
Ms Foster’s comments, and the fact they were made in Dublin, are likely to draw attention from both Dublin and London, although neither government was willing to comment yesterday on Wednesday evening.
Meanwhile, in her behind-closed-doors speech to Dublin Chamber of Commerce, Ms Foster said while she does not want the backstop “a no-deal outcome is no-one’s preferred outcome and is not of itself a final destination”.
Addressing recent claims that the DUP’s influence in Westminster “is on the wane”, she said pointedly:
“The reality is, regardless of particular numbers, no agreement will pass parliament without the buy-in of the unionist community.”