May and Foster hold telephone talks in bid to break Irish border deadlock

Theresa May and Arlene Foster

Theresa May has held telephone talks with Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster in a bid to break the Brexit deadlock over the Irish border issue.

Mrs May is battling to get the DUP, who prop up the government in the Commons, to support proposals that would allow the EU to trigger the next stage of trade negotiations.

A botched bid to do a deal with Brussels was scuppered on Monday when the DUP refused to accept wording regarding "regulatory alignment" across the border which they suggested would create an effective customs divide in the Irish Sea.

Mrs May is keen to get the DUP on board ahead of a key EU summit on December 14 which will decide if trade talks can finally begin.

The PM had expected to speak to the DUP leader on Tuesday in an attempt to resolve their differences but, in a possible sign of how intractable the issue has become, the call did not take place.

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Mrs Foster has complained that her party was only shown the proposed text regarding the Irish border late on Monday morning, around the time the Prime Minister was sitting down to lunch in Brussels with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

The EU insists trade negotiations can begin only after "sufficient progress" has been made on the three key divorce issues of the Irish border, citizens' rights, and the UK's exit bill.

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Dublin has warned that unless the UK provides cast-iron guarantees that the border will remain open, it will not allow the Brexit talks to expand to trade relations.

The PM's telephone diplomacy came as reports suggested that Hard Brexiteers within Mrs May's Cabinet have voiced opposition to her signing the UK up to any deal which would stop it diverging from EU regulations on issues like food safety, environmental protection and workplace rights after Brexit.

Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said that the difficult issue of customs controls on movements between Northern Ireland and the Republic could only be resolved in the context of wider negotiations on the EU's post-Brexit relationship with the UK.

Speaking to reporters as he arrived for a Nato summit in Brussels, Mr Johnson said: "We will come up with a solution, but the important thing is that that solution can only be discovered in the context of discussions on the end-state of the UK's relations with the rest of the EU.

"We need to get on with those negotiations now, so all the more reason to get on with stage two of the negotiations.

"What I would say is that the best way to sort it out is to get on to the second phase of the negotiations, where all these difficult issues can be properly teased out, thrashed out and solved."

In a clear sign that he was not budging from the Hard Brexit demands of his Vote Leave campaign, Mr Johnson said: "I think the important thing is that what we are going to do, as the Prime Minister has repeatedly said, is we are going to take back control of our borders, of our laws and UK cash contributions. That's the way forward."

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