DUP leader Arlene Foster: blocking a Brexit deal could have serious consequences for the party and others © EPA

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One does not often lose money betting on the intransigence of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party. With Theresa May’s government dependent on DUP backing, the party’s decision to block a carefully crafted deal that would unlock the next phase of Brexit talks was an accident waiting to happen. However, it is also a mistake that could have serious consequences for all concerned — not least the DUP.

The fact is that the draft agreement represents Mrs May’s best effort to reconcile the conflicting demands of the various groups — all of whom are poised to accuse her of betrayal. She had persuaded hardline Brexit supporters to accept the necessary concessions to the EU on a financial settlement. She was close to a deal that would finesse the role of the European Court of Justice in guaranteeing EU citizens’ rights. And on the most intractable question, the Irish border, the promise of “regulatory alignment” between the north and south contained just enough wriggle room to allow all parties to say they had met their aims and defer the really difficult decisions.

The phrase offered the Irish government reassurance that they would not be forced to police the EU’s new external border for customs infractions. It should be acceptable to the DUP, because alignment does not require a border down the Irish Sea, if one understands it to include the possibility of UK-wide regulatory alignment, at least in the sectors that matter most for the Irish economy and for the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Many in Westminster — and Scotland — would be keen to open up such options. Of course, it leaves a great deal unanswered. But ambiguity is what is needed to keep the show on the road.

It is possible that the DUP objected less to the substance than to Dublin’s temerity in briefing early that the deal had been done and the impression that it had the whip hand over London — a source, no doubt, of at least a little satisfaction in Ireland.

However, both sides are playing for high stakes. If the UK cannot wrap up Brexit divorce talks at next week’s EU summit and start talking about trade and transition, there is a real risk of the whole process unravelling — and Mrs May’s government with it. Ireland stands to lose more than any other EU member state if Brexit talks fail, both in economic terms and in the risks of renewed sectarian tensions. The DUP enjoys enormous leverage in Westminster at present. It has everything to lose if its intransigence ushers in a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time nationalist sympathiser.

It is in everyone’s interests to find a solution and give Mrs May the space she needs to conclude this deal and move on. So far, she has spent the best part of nine months persuading Brexit supporters to recognise how weak Britain’s position is and make the necessary concessions to get started. At times, she has badly misjudged the mood in Brussels and underestimated how serious issues such as the Irish border would prove to be.

This does not bode well for the next stage of talks. But no one can afford to spend more time and political capital on the preliminaries. It is time to confront the central question: what the “end state” of Britain’s relations with the EU should be. The row over the Irish border stems from Mrs May’s unwise commitment to leaving the customs union. It has exposed the depth of the divisions between ministers who want Britain to remain as closely aligned with EU rules as possible, to maximise market access, and those who want the UK to strike out alone. No one should be under any illusion about how tough the coming months will be.

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