DUP says Foster-McGuinness letter can 'inform alternative arrangements' to backstop

Theresa May (centre) with Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness in July 2016. Picture by Hugh Russell

A letter jointly signed by Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness which outlined the Stormont executive's key concerns around Brexit can "inform the discussions on alternative arrangements", the DUP's Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has said.

The DUP is hoping to avoid a hard border but also a full alignment with EU rules that were the basis of its opposition to then prime minister Theresa May's withdrawal agreement.

The August 2016 letter to Mrs May was the only policy direction Northern Ireland civil servants received in relation to Brexit before the executive collapsed six months later.

It stressed the need for a free-flowing border and the retention “as far as possible” of trading arrangements with EU states, alongside continued access to EU labour and the cross-border energy network.

The Stormont leaders also highlighted the region's high dependency on Common Agricultural Policy payments and other EU funds.

Acknowledging Mrs May's intention to trigger Article 50 and set a course for Brexit, Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness said their aim was to achieve the "best possible outcome for the people of Northern Ireland".

Speaking to The Irish News last night, Sir Jeffrey played down suggestions that the significance of the letter had increased in recent weeks, saying the party had "pointed to it on a number of occasions in the past".

He said the principles outlined in the correspondence "form the core of what could be alternatives arrangements to the backstop".

The Lagan Valley MP said any revised deal would require commitments in the political declaration that set the framework for the future relationship between the EU and the UK.

"The focus at the moment is on what the alternative arrangements might look like and once you know that you can frame the commitments that you want to see built around that," he said.

Sir Jeffrey said meeting the aspirations outlined in the letter would not create a 'border in the Irish Sea', as it would avoid east-west customs checks and tariffs.

"You're not talking about taking Northern Ireland out of the UK customs arrangements but rather the structural arrangements that allow Northern Ireland to recognise EU standards on food and agri goods – plenty of which are already in place," he said.

"We are looking at the regulatory framework within which we continue to do cross-border trade."

He said the main focus was on agrifood products but "touched on other areas".

Asked if the letter formed a template on which the DUP could do business, Sir Jeffrey said: "I think the letter offers key principles that can inform the discussions on alternative arrangements."

He said if a deal was to be agreed it was "essential that the Northern Ireland institutions were plugged-in to any arrangements".

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