Of all of Theresa May’s challenges on Brexit, finding a customs solution that is both acceptable to the DUP and keeps the Irish border open has proved the most fraught.
The unionists’ insistence that Northern Ireland must leave the EU on the same terms as the rest of the UK, and their seeming attachment to leaving the single market and customs union, has made resolving the future of the frontier an almost intractable headache for the government.
But rather than pursue outlandish and politically toxic solutions such as the proposal for a 10-mile wide buffer zone on the border or joint UK-EU status for Northern Ireland – both floated and promptly sunk earlier this week – could the government instead soften Brexit with the backing of the DUP?
Listen to Sammy Wilson, the party’s pugnacious Brexit spokesman, or any other of the party’s MPs who have pushed technological solutions for the border, and that suggestion sounds a bit pie in the sky.
Skewering the government’s “contradictory and half-cooked” approach to resolving the border question, Wilson said on Thursday that the government had failed “to make it clear to the EU that regardless of Barnier and EU negotiators’ attempts to keep us in the customs union and the single market, we are leaving”.
He continued: “Instead of moving from one set of half-cooked ideas to the other, it is now time for the Government to put down its foot and make it clear to EU negotiators that the Prime Minister stands by her commitment that no deal is better than a bad deal, and if they want to avoid the consequences then they need to stop dismissing the perfectly feasible ideas that were put forward in August of last year.”
But although the party’s official – and saltily expressed – line is that the UK must leave the customs union, Arlene Foster left the door open to compromise this morning. Asked by Sky News whether a “new customs union” was the only solution open to the prime minister, Foster did not rule it out.
“For us, our only red line is that we are not treated any different from the rest of the United Kingdom, that there are no trade barriers put up between Northern Ireland and our biggest market which, of course, is Great Britain.
“That’s what we will judge all of the propositions that are brought forward, we will judge it against that red line and she’s very much aware of that, and I have confidence that she knows that she cannot bring forward anything that will breach that red line or we simply will not be able to support them.”
Nigel Dodds, her all-powerful deputy and the party’s leader at Westminster, made a similar point earlier in the week. Yet such interventions follow a pattern – there is always an opportunity for the government hidden inside the DUP’s threat, especially when those issuing the threat are its leaders (Foster, Dodds, and Jeffrey Donaldson, the party’s chief whip).
They have only really caused problems for the government when solutions for Northern Ireland that would give it a status different to the UK’s have been in the offing. So while Dodds said the DUP would be prepared to bring down the government should it impose new constitutional or economic barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, stressing that “anything that would diminish the Union of the United Kingdom would be a clear red line”, he did not explicitly express opposition to some dilution of the government’s vision of Brexit.
That the DUP leadership both in Belfast and Westminster has not closed the door on a new customs union for the whole UK therefore creates an opportunity for the government to resolve its most acute Brexit headache as this month’s crunch EU Council summit approaches. Whether it has the political agility to grasp it is another question.