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Arlene Foster’s ‘blood red’ line puts Brexit deal on a knife-edge

At this late stage of the Brexit negotiations when, behind the scenes, civil servants are thrashing out the details of withdrawal agreement almost around the clock, today there was a remarkable reality check.

As far as the DUP is concerned, there is no room for compromise on the most contentious issue blocking a solution for all sides.

The DUP will not budge on its “blood red” lines.

There was astonishment from many reporters at a press conference when DUP leader Arlene Foster revealed she hasn’t seen the text of a ‘hybrid’ Northern Ireland backstop proposal which had been due to be unveiled “soon” by the UK government.

An attempt at finding a path through the NI backstop issue which, according to a variety of sources, is the biggest barrier to a deal.

  • Watch Arlene Foster's press conference in full

The ‘backstop’ is the insurance policy the European Union wants if there’s no trade deal between the UK and the EU at the end of the transition period in Dec 2020.

The EU suggested that, in those circumstances, NI could stay in the EU’s customs union and single market, the border would remain invisible and the rest of the UK would leave the EU.

However, the DUP, a unionist party, rejects any notion of Northern Ireland being carved out in a deal and treated as separate to the rest of the UK.

If the new UK proposals are designed to avoid a hard border between NI and Ireland (which no-one wants) include, as expected, mechanisms to have the whole UK stay in the customs union and have some extra checks introduced in the Irish Sea to ensure the integrity of the single market, then the government may need to think again.

Will Theresa May be able to find a solution for the Northern Ireland border? Credit: PA

Arlene Foster was clearly heading off any of those ‘extra checks’ in the Irish Sea ideas.

I asked her if, in that case, if she was prepared to veto any Brexit deal she doesn’t like, even if it triggers a ‘No Deal’ outcome.

She was pretty clear in her reply: “We’ve always said there’s only one red line in these matters and that’s when we’re treated differently from the rest of the UK in terms of customs in terms of regulatory alignment and that’s not only to protect the constitutional integrity of the UK but also the economy of NI.”

Over the weekend EU leaders were talking up the chances of signing a deal at next week’s summit in Brussels. Today it feels very different. If there was hope of a compromise over the backstop, there’s very little left now.

Either everyone is waiting, playing their cards close before an actual text is revealed or there’s no chance of a withdrawal deal before next week’s EU summit.