Arlene Foster has refuted reports that her Democratic Unionist Party is willing to accept a Brexit agreement that would keep Northern Ireland tied to some EU regulations.
The Times is claiming that the DUP has “agreed to shift its red lines” in a deal to replace the Irish backstop. The reported U-turn would also see the Northern Irish party dropping its objections to regulatory checks in the Irish Sea.
According to newspaper, the DUP has handed Boris Johnson a “lifeline” by paving the way for his government to replace the full Irish backstop, under which Northern Ireland, Great Britain and the EU would remain in a “single customs territory”.
But DUP leader Foster has dismissed the story as “nonsense” and insists the party would “not support any arrangements that create a barrier to east west trade”.
Echoing that message, DUP Brexit spokesperson Sammy Wilson told the BBC that The Times’ report “goes against all of what has been said in recent days” and is simply “bad journalism”.
The DUP has already said it would accept certain European regulations which “are essential to the operation of industry in Northern Ireland and which don’t impact with our relationship with our main market in Great Britain”, Wilson continued.
“But that’s totally different from saying that you hand to the EU your rights in the future to make rules and regulations which apply to Northern Ireland which would then be subject to decisions by European Court of Justice and would require checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.”
So how did the party come to take centre stage in the Brexit deal row?
Who are the DUP?
Founded by the late Ian Paisley in 1971, at the height of the Northern Ireland Troubles, and now led by Arlene Foster, the DUP is the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly and is currently the fifth-largest party in the Commons – with ten MPs.
The DUP nominally governs Northern Ireland with its republican rivals Sinn Fein as part of a power-sharing deal set out in the Good Friday Peace Agreement.
However, discord between the two parties means the Stormont Assembly has not sat for more than two years – a record among western democracies.
Why is it so important?
The DUP emerged as a victor from the 2017 general election. While the result saw then-prime minister Theresa May politically weakened and unable to command a majority in Parliament, it left the DUP’s ten MPs as kingmakers in a “confidence and supply” agreement to prop up the government.
This is a position its members have leveraged to maximum effect, exercising their effective veto over the government’s Brexit negotiations to ensure there is no deal that could cut off Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
Foster said that there was “nothing unusual” about the prorogation and that Johnson was “well within his rights” to ask for one.
What do they stand for?
Domestic issues: The DUP has long opposed and voted against introducing same-sex marriage and more liberal abortion laws to the province.
Its 2017 manifesto also included retaining the “triple lock” on pensions, cutting VAT for tourism businesses, abolishing air passenger duty and reviewing the price of ferries between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
The DUP was also the only major political group in Northern Ireland to oppose the Good Friday Agreement – before finally entering into a power-sharing government in 2007.
Brexit: Although Northern Ireland voted Remain by a majority of 56% to 44%, the DUP campaigned strongly for Brexit during the 2016 EU referendum.
Above all, though, the party defines itself by its support for the UK. This insistence on keeping the union whole has set up a series of red lines on Brexit that both May and Johnson have found all but impossible to square with their own promises to take the UK out of the customs union while maintaining a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic in the south.
Foster has repeatedly stated her desire not have a hard border – but, for her and her party, continued economic and political alignment with the rest of the UK is key.
Westminster allies: The party’s socially conservative and unionist policies have long made it a natural ally of the Tories, with the 2017 confidence and supply agreement formalising this relationship.
The DUP has repeatedly ruled out working with Labour under Jeremy Corbyn, a supporter of Irish republicanism who maintained links with Sinn Fein during the Troubles in order to work for a resolution to the armed conflict.
Speaking in the aftermath of the 2017 election, Nigel Dodds, DUP leader at Westminster, said: “Under no circumstances would we support, help, prop up or any way assist Jeremy Corbyn to achieve any of his objectives given his track record.”
Yet past animosity may not be enough to trump current political reality.
“Ultimately the ‘U’ in DUP doesn’t stand for not letting Jeremy Corbyn in, regardless of how they feel about his past connections and sympathies,” says Stephen Bush in the New Statesman. “It stands for “Unionist”. If the choice that the DUP ultimately face is between a threat to the Union and the risk of a Corbyn-led government, they won’t have to think twice.”