The Government has moved to protect the proposed compromise Brexit deal after a twin attack by a hard-line Brexiteer and the deputy leader of the DUP.
he British and Irish governments’ plan to break the impasse suffered an apparent setback after the DUP’s Nigel Dodds said the double customs solution “cannot work”, and Brexiteer Owen Paterson, a former Northern Ireland secretary, suggested it would “ride roughshod” over the Good Friday Agreement.
Last night, Government sources in Dublin said the comments by Mr Dodds, the DUP leader in Westminster, should “not be overblown”, adding: “He’s only looking for political cover over the coming days and I don’t think it will impact on talks.”
The European Union was this weekend continuing Brexit negotiations with the UK government, aimed at preventing the UK from crashing out of the EU.
A spokesman for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the Government would not be giving “running commentary” on the current phase of Brexit negotiations.
The development centred on an article published in the Daily Telegraph newspaper on Friday by arch Brexiteer Mr Paterson, a prominent member of the hard-line ERG, which supports a no-deal Brexit.
There is some evidence that Mr Paterson’s article, and subsequent comments by Mr Dodds, may have been co-ordinated to raise doubts over the compromise plan arrived at by the UK prime minister, and Taoiseach in Liverpool last week.
In his newspaper article, Mr Paterson warned of “a danger that lurking beneath the warm words” is a plan “to keep Northern Ireland permanently in the [EU] Customs Union.”
Mr Paterson said there was a “risk” that the view of secretary-general of the European Commission, Martin Selmayr, would prevail, that Northern Ireland should be the price the UK pays for Brexit.
The two governments’ proposed new deal, in effect, would resemble the originally proposed Northern Ireland-only backstop, but would allow the UK government to keep Northern Ireland legally in the UK customs territory.
However, Mr Paterson said it would be “absurd to penalise” Northern Ireland with “EU costs and overbearing regulations” for a small proportion of trade, leaving it “unable to take advantage” of new UK trade deals. He also claimed the proposed new deal would be a “flagrant breach” of the Good Friday Agreement.
He subsequently posted the article to his Twitter account, stating the new plan would “ride roughshod over one of the core tenets of the Belfast Agreement: the principle of consent.” This would stir up problems in Northern Ireland long after Brexit was resolved, he said.
Asked about the article in Italy yesterday, Mr Dodds said Mr Paterson was “absolutely right”.
In a news report posted online by the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Mr Dodds was quoted as saying Northern Ireland “must stay in a full UK customs union, full stop”.
The Italian newspaper quoted Mr Dodds: “There is a lot of stuff coming from Brussels, pushed by the Europeans in the last hours, but one thing is sure: Northern Ireland must remain fully part of the UK customs union. And Boris Johnson knows it very well...”
The newspaper quoted Mr Dodds rejecting as unrealistic the solution now being discussed, stating: “No, it cannot work.” However, Mr Dodds was further quoted: “We’ll wait and see.”
Mr Paterson also posted the La Repubblica article to his Twitter account last night, describing it as a “significant statement”.
Meanwhile, Jacob Rees-Mogg this morning issued an appeal to Brexiteers to trust Boris Johnson as negotiations on a deal with Brussels enter a critical stage.
The Leader of the Commons, who was a thorn in the side of Theresa May over Brexit before joining Mr Johnson's administration, warned compromise was inevitable if there was to be an agreement.
He even hinted he may even have to "eat my words" and support a plan close to Mrs May's rejected agreement - which he described as "completely cretinous" saying it would reduce Britain to a "vassal state".
Mr Rees-Mogg - who previously led the strongly pro-Brexit European Research Group - insisted however Leave supporters could have confidence Mr Johnson would not give too much ground to Brussels in order to get a deal.
"I think that he is somebody who even the arch Eurosceptics, even a member of the Brexit Party, can trust and have confidence in," he told Sky News's Sophy Ridge on Sunday programme.
His comments will be seen as a sign of nervousness that hardline Tory Brexiteers could scupper any agreement Mr Johnson is able to reach, just as they thwarted his predecessor.
The Prime Minister was briefing the Cabinet on the progress of the negotiations - which were continuing over the weekend with UK and EU in Brussels - in a conference call.
However, Mr Rees-Mogg refused to be drawn on the detail of what was being discussed in the Belgian capital.
"Naturally in the middle of a negotiation these matters are extremely sensitive as everyone is compromising to some degree and therefore to give negotiations the best chance of succeeding, it is best to be discreet about them," he said.
But pressed on whether it could be close to Mrs May's plan, he said: "We'll have to find out in a day or two whether I'll have to eat my words or not - time will tell."
He added: "There's a line from Churchill saying that he often had to eat his words and he found it to be a very nourishing diet - and that is something that happens in politics."
Meanwhile, Home Secretary Priti Patel said security measures were being stepped up in preparedness for a possible no-deal, but denied they were driven by fears of an upsurge in terrorism by dissident Irish republicans.
She acknowledged however they were "conscious" of the situation in Northern Ireland and said ministers were working on "alternative arrangements" for intelligence and data sharing.
"When it comes to security tools and security co-operation there are many measures that are being put in place right now in preparedness for no-deal," she told BBC1's The Andrew Marr Show.
"Specifically to Northern Ireland, we are conscious and we are working with all organisations, agencies, to ensure that we remain safe."
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the party would decide how to respond once they had seen any deal Mr Johnson was able to bring back from Brussels.
However, he urged "caution" on any MPs considering backing an agreement if it were put to a confirmatory referendum.
"I think many in Parliament, not necessarily Labour MPs but others might be more inclined to support it even if they don't really agree with the deal. But I would caution them," he told Sophy Ridge on Sunday.
Additional reporting: Press Association