Any Brexit deal that applies to Northern Ireland will also cover the rest of the UK, David Davis has promised in an urgent bid to reassure the Democrat Unionist party on whom the government relies for votes.
The Brexit secretary told MPs the government was seeking “regulatory alignment” with the EU, although shortly afterwards the DUP MP Nigel Dodds said his party found such references to be unacceptable in a draft Brexit agreement text.
Davis insisted that any such alignment would be UK-wide and it would not mean retaining exactly the same rules as the EU, or remaining in the single market. He was responding to demands from a string of Scottish, Welsh and English MPs that any arrangements for Northern Ireland would apply across the country.
“The presumption of the discussion was that everything we talked about applied to the whole United Kingdom,” he said.
“Alignment isn’t harmonisation. It isn’t having exactly the same rules. It is sometimes having mutually recognised rules, mutually recognised inspection – that is what we are aiming at.”
A few minutes later Dodds revealed that his party had only been shown the government’s proposed wording for the Irish border text on Monday morning.
He made clear that his party found the reference to regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the republic “clearly unacceptable” amid concerns that it could weaken the economic and territorial integrity of the UK.
The unionist politician said the “ambiguous wording” was the reason for his party’s last-minute intervention to government officials, which forced Theresa May to step back from finalising a first-phase deal on Monday.
The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, later said she had been asking for the wording for five weeks, and that it had come as a “big shock” when it arrived on Monday.
She said her party, which lends May votes to secure a majority in parliament, was left in a difficult position.
“We had to try and understand what the ramifications of the text was. When we had a chance to do that, we realised that in no way could we sign up to that text, because essentially it was making a red line down the Irish Sea.”
She told RTE News that British negotiators had blamed the Irish government for preventing the DUP from seeing the text.
As the prime minister prepared to speak to Foster and her Sinn Féin counterpart, Michelle O’Neill, Davis was called to address MPs in an urgent question from the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer.
Starmer described Monday’s developments as an embarrassment. “The last 24 hours have given new meaning to the phrase ‘coalition of chaos’. Yesterday morning No 10 was briefing that a deal would be signed. There was a high expectation that the PM would make a triumphant statement to the house. By teatime, we had a 49-second press conference saying that the deal was off.”
He said May herself should be answering questions, and the delays had been caused not by disagreements with those on “the other side of the negotiating table”, but a “fallout with those supposedly on your own side”.
Dodds also spoke during the parliamentary debate, and focused his ire on the Irish government after leaks to the media appeared to suggest the UK was ready to concede on issues relating to Northern Ireland.
He said the republic had advanced its interests in an “aggressive and anti-unionist way”, and had “set back Anglo-Irish relations and damaged the relationships built up within Northern Ireland in terms of the devolution settlement, and that is going to take a long time to repair”.
He said later: “We will not allow any settlement to be agreed which causes a divergence, politically or economically, of Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, because to do so would not just be politically damaging but would be economically catastrophic for everyone in Northern Ireland – unionist, nationalist, Brexiter or remainer.”
Davis said his government was close to concluding the first stage of negotiations – focused on the Irish border, citizens’ rights and the financial settlement – and no part of the UK would be left behind.
“So when the the first minister of Wales complains about it, or the first minister of Scotland says it’s a reason to start banging the tattered drum of independence, or the mayor of London says it justifies a hard border round the M25, I say they are making a foolish mistake.”
However, he will need to satisfy key Brexit-supporting MPs on his own benches who could be nervous about anything that could limit the UK’s ability to diverge from the EU.
Jacob Rees-Mogg offered his gratitude to the DUP for ensuring the government stuck to its own policy. He said: “And is it not essential that the red lines on maintaining the UK and on regulatory divergence whence the benefits of leaving come are indelible red lines?”
Davis’s answer was brief: “The red line for me is delivering the best Brexit for Britain and that is what I’ll do.”
Asked after the debate whether Davis’s proposal might be acceptable to Brexiters, Rees-Mogg said: “In financial services the principle of equivalence is already established and that is achievable alongside divergence.”
In Dublin, the Irish prime minister told the Dáil he believed there was plenty of time to salvage the first-phase deal.
Leo Varadkar said the “regulatory alignment” proposal was the British negotiators’ preferred option, not Ireland’s.
“There was an exchange of texts – one being regulatory divergence and no regulatory alignment. We satisfied ourselves on Sunday night that we could accept either of those two lines and ‘regulatory alignment’ was what was accepted by British advisers on Monday morning,” he told the Irish parliament.
Varadkar said he was optimistic a deal could still be sealed because the European council did not meet until 14 December.
This article was written by Anushka Asthana and Lisa O'Carroll, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 5th December 2017 18.41 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010