May's pitch to save Brexit deal meets resistance in Belfast

British Prime Mininster Theresa May delivers a Brexit statement at Downing Street on November 14, 2018 in London (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
British Prime Mininster Theresa May delivers a Brexit statement at Downing Street on November 14, 2018 in London (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

As Theresa May flies into Northern Ireland to sell her Brexit plan, the Democratic Unionist Party is uniting behind leader Arlene Foster’s opposition to the deal.

May is in Belfast on Tuesday to drum up support for her accord, which the DUP say imperils Northern Ireland’s place in the UK by potentially tying the region to European Union rules indefinitely.

"The DUP is leading the way and the Conservative Party need us - if they don’t know this by now they are living in cloud cuckoo land," said Alan Ewart, 68, a member of the party since its inception in 1971 and now its finance director. "Theresa May will not get the deal through parliament so I believe her days as prime minister are numbered."

Ewart was speaking at the party’s annual conference on Saturday, as Foster vowed to continue the battle against May’s deal. No dissenting voices spoke against Foster, bad news for May, who relies on the DUP’s 10 lawmakers to stay in power.

May’s visit is likely to be a "waste of time," Foster said in an interview with Bloomberg Television on Tuesday, dismissing the idea the party is bluffing.

"It’s quite offensive to say that we are going support this deal if we were given money for Northern Ireland. This is about the future of Northern Ireland.

"It also throws question marks around her wider strategy of directly appealing to voters and companies to pressure lawmakers to back her deal. Northern Irish business groups want the DUP to support her.

May’s appeal

Companies "need to be able to trade freely across the border with Ireland and have unfettered access to the rest of the UK market," according to May, who is also visiting Wales to sell the deal.

"This deal makes that possible and that’s why, across Northern Ireland, employers large and small have been getting behind it."

It’s not a line the DUP is buying. Foster "is doing well with Brexit, she will always have my support," said Bert Johnston, 81, a party member for 40 years. "If the Conservatives want to continue to enjoy the support of the DUP they need to remove the backstop. Arlene has strength and character and that’s why I have every faith in her leadership."

To help avoid the return of checkpoints on the Irish border, May’s deal suggests the entire UK will remain in a customs union with the EU until a better solution is found.

But Northern Ireland will also keep many of the EU’s rules - and that means added checks on goods arriving from mainland Britain.

Both the UK and EU say they want to avoid the so-called backstop ever being triggered, but so far that hasn’t been enough to reassure the DUP.

"Arlene is leading the way, she is leading the party exceptionally," said Aaron Elliott, 19, party member from Foster’s constituency, close to the Irish border. "She has maintained our red line over the integrity of our UK."

Internal barriers

In Dublin, some officials had hoped the party might abstain in the upcoming parliamentary vote on May’s deal, possibly if the UK agrees to stick to all the EU’s rules to avoid internal barriers. Still, there’s little sign of the DUP wavering right now, with Foster pointing out such declarations aren’t legally binding.

"What we will be saying very clearly to her is she needs to get rid of the backstop," Foster said. "As far as I can see, this is not going through parliament and therefore instead of wasting time over this next two weeks going on a PR offensive, what she should be doing is try and find a third way forward."

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