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How a group of Northern Irish politicians holds the potential key to a Brexit deal

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Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. Photo: Getty
Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. Photo: Getty

By now, almost everyone is aware of the febrile atmosphere surrounding Brexit and Northern Ireland—and why many fear a hard border would wreck the hard-won peace on the island of Ireland.

Though a majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union, the largest party there, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), campaigned heavily in favour of leaving. To complicate matters further, the party’s MPs in Westminster prop up Theresa May’s government—something that not only makes her reliant on the party for even the most routine votes in the House of Commons, but also gives the DUP a de-facto veto over many aspects of the Brexit deal.

READ MORE: Hard border will see ‘return to violence within a week’

That’s why the three days of meetings that DUP leader Arlene Foster will hold this week with chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and representatives of EU countries will be keenly watched.

In a statement on Monday before she departed for Brussels, Foster reiterated a message that she made loud and clear last week: “no new borders” can be created between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

This poses problems for the proposed “Brexit backstop,” a fall-back solution that aims to prevent a hard border by putting Northern Ireland in closer alignment with the EU’s customs and trade rules than the rest of the UK. Foster has rejected a version of the backstop that would see only Northern Ireland remain within the EU’s customs union in the event that the EU and Britain can’t agree on a trade deal for after the two-year transition period.

READ MORE: Why the Northern Irish border is a huge problem for Brexit

Members of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) are also set to meet Barnier on Tuesday. They too have said they are “deeply concerned” about the proposed backstop and said that it was “vital” to preserve the constitutional integrity of the UK.

While they acknowledge the implications of a hard border on the island of Ireland, both parties argue that any proposal that distinguishes Northern Ireland from the rest of Britain would be akin to putting a border in the Irish Sea. And that, they say, will affect the economic wellbeing of Northern Ireland. In a statement, UUP leader Robin Swann said that such an arrangement would be as bad for Northern Ireland as a no-deal Brexit.

READ MORE: Fear swirls around Brexit hitting the lifeblood of Northern Ireland’s economy

On Friday, representatives of the Northern Irish parties that backed a remain vote, including of the republican Sinn Féin, met Barnier in Brussels and warned against the DUP being given a veto on a backstop deal. According to Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O’Neill, the parties were concerned that Northern Ireland’s Stormont Assembly—which, thanks to a domestic political stalemate, has been without an executive since January 2017—could be given a vote on the matter.

Despite a downbeat statement from a British government spokesperson on Tuesday, there have been indications that a breakthrough in Brexit negotiations is imminent. But this is largely thanks to progress on issues not related to the backstop.

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