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New Irish border proposal ‘step in right direction’

Reported new British proposals to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland post-Brexit have been welcomed by an EU source close the negotiations.

The Irish border is a key sticking point in the talks as both sides try to strike an agreement in time for the end of March 2019, when Britain leaves the EU.

One particular source of friction is a disagreement on what the fallback arrangement should be if Britain and the EU cannot agree a Brexit deal, the so-called "backstop".

According to Reuters, EU diplomats and officials have said Britain is proposing agreeing to an indefinite backstop, something which was missing from a plan put forward – and rejected by Brussels – in June.

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A source told the news agency: "This is a step in the right direction, it makes finding a compromise possible."

But news of the emerging proposal is likely to anger the DUP, the party that supports Prime Minister Theresa May's minority government at Westminster and helps it pass key legislation.

It comes as Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar meets European Council President Donald Tusk and the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, in Brussels.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Dublin was not aware of any proposals being formally tabled, although he added he expects this to happen in the next week.

Leo Varadkar Image: Irish PM Leo Varadkar will meet with key EU officials later

According to Reuters, London is standing by its red line that if the backstop is triggered, the whole of the UK would stay in a customs union with the EU and have the same external tariff on some goods.

The EU has previously expressed opposition to this as it fears Britain could exploit the special access of Northern Ireland to the bloc's single market.

But Mrs May has argued the EU's alternative – which would effectively see Northern Ireland alone remain within its single market and customs union – would damage the constitutional integrity of the UK.

EU sources said the British proposal would remove the need for customs checks on goods and agriculture on the island of Ireland.

Arlene Foster speaks during day three of the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham Image: Arlene Foster says the PM's silence on the backstop has created a 'vacuum'

They said that for the other type of checks, regulatory ones, Britain would agree to simplified, light controls on goods going from the British mainland to Northern Ireland that would be carried out away from the actual border as much as possible.

This has the potential to cause friction with the DUP, who are vehemently against different rules for Northern Ireland.

There was anger in the party when Bloomberg reported earlier this week that Mrs May was preparing a big pitch to Brussels on the backstop, offering regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

DUP leader Arlene Foster, speaking to Sky News, demanded Mrs May came clean about the reported plan to create a regulatory border in the Irish Sea.

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She warned such a move would be an economic "disaster" and damage the UK's "constitutional integrity".

Ms Foster claimed the PM's silence had created a "vacuum" and called on her to publish any new plans to clear up any ambiguity.

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