MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - Arlene Foster, leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), said on Sunday she supported Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but could not accept leaving the EU on different terms to the rest of the country.
The support of Foster’s party, which is allied with Johnson’s governing Conservatives, is seen as key to getting any Brexit deal passed by parliament, but it has balked at Northern Ireland being treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom.
The so-called Northern Irish backstop, an insurance policy to prevent the return of a hard border between the British province and EU member Ireland after Brexit, has been the main stumbling block to reaching an agreement with Brussels.
Foster said she was an optimist and was hopeful that Johnson could negotiate a new deal with the EU, something she said would protect Northern Irish trade, particularly in agricultural products.
“No one wants to have huge infrastructure at the border ... There has to be a willingness to be flexible, to be creative, while recognising the constitutional position of Northern Ireland,” Foster told an event at the Conservative Party’s annual conference.
“In relation to customs ... we are very, very clear - we have to leave on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom. We cannot have an internal customs border within the United Kingdom.”
British officials have said there has been some progress in talks with the EU on the backstop and will present formal proposals later this week. But negotiators in Brussels question whether London has “an equally effective and operational alternative to our safety net”.
Asked whether the DUP could accept regulatory checks between Northern Ireland and Britain beyond agricultural goods or accept some kind of special status that would put Northern Ireland in a customs territory with both the United Kingdom and the EU, Foster replied: “No.”
“I think what some people don’t understand about the Democratic Unionist Party is that when we have set out our position, that is our position,” said Foster.
“How can we possibly be in the EU customs union and also be in the UK?”
Reporting by Elizabeth Piper, Editing by Kylie MacLellan and Gareth Jones