EU leaders confirm still '˜no deal' on Northern Ireland border

Jean-Claude Juncker has expressed optimism that EU and UK negotiating teams will make 'sufficient progress' to move on to the next phase of Brexit talks despite confirming that they are yet to reach an agreement over the Irish border.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker

It comes as the leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party has sent a clear warning to Downing Street not to pursue a deal that could result in “regulatory divergence” between the UK and Belfast after Brexit, stating that the party’s MPs “will not accept” it.

Speaking after today’s crucial meeting between the Prime Minister and Mr Juncker, the DUP’s Arlene Foster suggested any move toward special status for Northern Ireland posed a threat to “the economic and constitutional integrity” of Britain.

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Her comments came amid speculation that negotiating teams were close to agreeing a solution to the Irish border problem, which would require Northern Ireland to replicate EU regulations in a range of areas relating to trade.

The intervention further complicates attempts to avoid a hard border with the Republic, as well as casting doubt on the strength of the alliance between the Conservative Government and the DUP’s 10 MPs.

Reports of a special deal for Northern Ireland prompted an outcry from the Scottish Government yesterday, with critics claiming it would entail the country remaining within the EU single market and customs union.

Taking to Twitter, the SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon stated that if this proves to be the case, other devolved nations should be offered the same option.

The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, also waded into the row, arguing that if Theresa May has conceded “that it’s possible for part of the UK to remain within the single market and customs union after Brexit” the same arrangement should be secured for London.

“Londoners overwhelmingly voted to remain in the EU and a similar deal here could protect tens of thousands of jobs,” he wrote.

However, issuing a formal statement just hours before Mr Juncker confirmed no deal on Ireland has yet been reached, Ms Foster was firm in her opposition to the proposals.

Speaking in Belfast, she made it clear her party “will not accept any form of regulatory divergence which separate Northern Ireland economically or politically from the rest of the UK”, while expressing frustration at the actions of the Irish government.

“We have been very clear: Northern Ireland must leave the European Union on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom,” she said. “The economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom must not be compromised in any way.

“For our part, of course, we do want to see a sensible Brexit, a Brexit where the common travel area is continued, where we meet our financial obligations, where we have a strict, time-limited implementation period, and where the contribution of EU migrants to our economy is recognised in a practical manner.

“The Republic of Ireland government for their part claim to be guarantors of the Belfast agreement but they are clearly seeking to unilaterally change that Belfast agreement without our input or our consent. And of course we will not stand for that.”

The DUP MP Sammy Wilson went on to suggest that regulatory convergence between Northern Ireland and the EU would face opposition from Conservative backbenchers.

Meanwhile, the former head of the Foreign Office, Lord Ricketts, warned that a decision to align regulations between Northern Ireland and the EU could “dramatically curtail” the scope for UK free trade agreements with nations like the US.