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Irish border debacle is 'not Davis’s fault'

Brexit Minister David Davis was only told of the UK offer on Sunday. Credit: PA

Arlene Foster and Northern Ireland’s DUP are understandably sore that the Prime Minister they are keeping in office did not show them the text of the UK’s offer to the EU, specifying there would be permanent regulatory “alignment” between Northern Ireland and the Republic, before they were put to the EU and leaked.

But their unblissful ignorance put them in distinguished company. They were only in a marginally more disadvantaged position than the Brexit secretary David Davis - because Theresa May did not tell him about the offer until Sunday evening, and he only then had the text read to him over the phone.

Or to put it another way, this crucial part of the Brexit negotiation was wholly driven by 10 Downing Street and not by the minister, Mr Davis, who was appointed by Mrs May to execute that vote to leave the EU.

And because Mr Davis, as a committed Brexiteer, has concerns about any offer to Brussels that could constrain post-Brexit Britain’s ability to set its own rules and regulations, he only approved the “alignment” phrase on Monday morning.

Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker were forced to admit they still had no agreement. Credit: AP

The reason he didn’t either reject the phrase, or quit over it, is because he took Downing Street at its word that “alignment” is helpfully and creatively ambiguous.

In other words, for the PM and UK it does not mean that Northern Ireland could never diverge from regulations currently and commonly shared with the Republic.

It opens the possibility of new rules that don’t seriously breach health or safety standards in agriculture, energy and transport, for example.

Per contra, for Dublin - as its PM Leo Varadkar said yesterday - “alignment” means precisely the same as “not diverging”.

It is a phrase whose meaning is in the eye of the beholder or - more properly - the ear of the listener.

Little wonder then that the DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds said today that such creative ambiguity is wholly unacceptable - because he and his colleagues mistrust Dublin much more than they trust Mrs May.

DUP leader Arlene Foster has said the British proposals are unacceptable. Credit: PA

As I understand it, Mr Davis and the DUP are both trying to clear up a mess they feel was dumped on them by Downing Street and Dublin.

That will require removing as much ambiguity from the offer to the EU as possible - so that the alignment applies to the narrowest possible number of sectors and to the UK as a whole, and also maximises the scope for the UK to set its own rules.

But in placating the DUP, the UK government risks alienating Dublin and Brussels.

So the moment is fast approaching when the PM may have to decide who she is more anxious about alienating: Dublin and Brussels, or the DUP and the Brexiteers in her own cabinet.