politics

Second Most Powerful U.K. Woman Lays Bare May's Brexit Problem

Arlene Foster Photographer: Aidan Crawley/Bloomberg

How to solve a problem like the Irish border?

In a deal agreed to last month, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May guaranteed no hard border will re-emerge on the island of Ireland after Brexit, with Northern Ireland playing by the same rules as those in the south if all else fails. At the same time, May gave an assurance that no barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. will come into play.

Those two objectives could be mutually exclusive, BMI Research said last week. The answer? Keep relevant rules across the U.K. in tune with the EU’s should the two sides fail to agree on a comprehensive trade agreement, according to Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster.

The deal “means that – in the event of no agreement in phase 2 – Northern Ireland businesses will retain unfettered access to the whole of the U.K. internal market and that, if required, any regulatory alignment on issues of north/south co-operation will be for the entirety of the United Kingdom,” Foster said on Saturday in Kerry, in a rare speech south of the border.

Foster’s views matter. Without her 10 lawmakers in London, May does not have a working majority to pass legislation. Trouble is, sticking to EU rules could spark a revolt among May’s own lawmakers, many of whom say the whole point of Brexit is that the nation would regain its sovereignty. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Environment Secretary Michael Gove, who together led the Brexit campaign in the 2016 referendum, have already signaled they want Britain to have the freedom to set its own rules.

Talks on the outline of the future trading relationship are due to start in March, with a year remaining until Britain’s scheduled exit day in 2019.

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