IT LOOKS increasingly likely Theresa May will have to wait until the new year before she can get anywhere near starting trade talks with the EU.

The Prime Minister had hoped to wrap up Brexit phase one in time for next week’s European Council, allowing the leaders of the 27 countries in the EU to decide sufficient progress had been made and negotiations on a future trade agreement could begin.

But that’s been kiboshed by the unwillingness of Northern Ireland’s DUP to countenance the “regulatory alignment” mentioned in the draft text agreed between the UK and the EU on Monday.

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Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he and his government were happy with the wording and that it was now up to May to get the Unionists on board.

“If it isn’t possible to move to phase two next week because of the problems that have arisen, well then we can pick it up of course in the new year,” Varadkar said.

May spoke to Varadkar and, separately, DUP leader Arlene Foster by telephone yesterday, but according to sources had not found a mutually acceptable deal.

Foster, who has the explicit support of Scots Tory chief Ruth Davidson, says Northern Ireland cannot be treated differently to the rest of the UK in any divorce settlement. She insists Britain’s border with the European Union must, in effect, remain on the island of Ireland.

This, the Europeans point out, means either a hard border between the north and south, or the whole of the UK remaining in the single market and customs union.

In Parliament May denied there were any problems.

“There are still a couple of things that we are negotiating,” she said.

Jeremy Corbyn asked: “The leader of the DUP told Irish television that she got sight of the deal only on Monday morning, five weeks after she first asked for it. Two months after the original deadline for the first phase of talks, and after Monday’s shambles, is the Prime Minister now about to end the confusion and clearly outline what the government’s position is now with regard to the Irish border?”

The Prime Minister said the government “will ensure that there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.”

Labour members heckled, “how?”

“I say to those Labour Members shouting ‘How?’, that is the whole point of the second phase of the negotiations, because we aim to deliver this as part of our overall trade deal between the United Kingdom and the European Union, and we can only talk about that when we get into phase 2”

Later, independent Irish Unionist MP Sylvia Hermon said a failure to agree a deal could only result in a hard border.

Hermon had tabled an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill which looked to preserve the principles of the Good Friday Agreement in the legislation.

Hermon recalled that her late husband Jack had as Chief Constable of the Royal Ulster Constabulary attended almost 100 funerals for officers killed during his 10 years in the job.

She said her husband supported the Good Friday Agreement despite the constitutional consequences of Sinn Fein being involved in the Executive, adding that it had brought stability and peace to Northern Ireland that has benefited the UK, the Republic and the EU. “The Good Friday Agreement act has given us peace an stability for 20 years and there can be no denying that.” she said.

She went on: “We have normality in Northern Ireland, we have peace, and we undoubtedly have people alive today that would not otherwise have been alive.

“May I just say ever so loudly and strongly to senior members of the Conservative Party – I do not want to hear them or see them on television talking about pushing ahead with no deal. Let’s just move on from no deal.

“It’s an absolute nonsense, it is so reckless and so dangerous because dissident republicans ... are active, they’re dangerous, they’re utterly ruthless.”

The DUP’s Nigel Dodds effectively accused Hermon of being a traitor. “Many people in Northern Ireland suspect that she is on the side of Dublin” he said to groans and shouts in the chamber.