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Brexit deal under fire as critics gather in Belfast on EU summit eve

World News
Sat, 24 Nov 2018
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Belfast: Opposition to a draft Brexit deal due to be approved by EU leaders dominated a conference on Saturday of the Democratic Unionist Party, the Northern Irish party whose support is vital to Prime Minister Theresa May's government and EU exit plans.

Ahead of a speech by Britain's former foreign minister Boris Johnson -- a staunch critic of the tentative agreement -- DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds warned May that she must abandon her proposal for a so-called backstop arrangement for Northern Ireland.

"The DUP wants a deal with the European Union... we understand that businesses, families and communities want certainty," Dodds said.

"But it is not this deal. It is not a deal at any price. Prime Minister -- bin the backstop," he urged May from the annual conference, this year coming the Sunday's special EU summit to sign off the plan.

The DUP's 10 MPs have propped up her government ever since she lost her majority in a 2017 election and was forced to turn to the fiercely pro-Brexit, unionist right-wingers to pass legislation.

However, that support is hanging by a thread over its opposition to May's plans for future ties with the European Union after Britain departs the bloc next March.

It fears the backstop -- which if used would keep Northern Ireland more closely aligned with the EU in certain areas following a 21-month transition period -- will effectively create a border between the British province and the UK mainland.

The party withdrew its support for government legislation earlier this week in a warning protest and Dodds said Saturday its support was "a two-way street".

But in a possible conciliatory offer for May, he added: "It is in the interests of the country and of Northern Ireland that our parties continue to work together in the national interest".

In a sign of the DUP's central role, British finance minister Philip Hammond attended the conference Friday.

Samantha Sacramento, the housing minister of Gibraltar -- the British territory which has become a last-minute sticking point ahead of the EU summit -- also addressed attendees Saturday.

"Our borders and our history are very different, but our solidarity in defence of our democratic right to preserve our British way of life is unshakeable," she said.

All eyes will be on Belfast when Johnson and DUP party leader Arlene Foster take the stage separately later in the day.

Foster will insist that the government "must implement the referendum result of 2016" and "we must leave as one nation," according to extracts released by the party.

She will tell May that the draft agreement "fails her own key commitments" but will hold off on withdrawing the party's support for her, according to the extracts.

The DUP is in favour of British rule in Northern Ireland, and fears that any weakening of the bonds with the rest of the country could increase the chances of a unified Ireland.

It has fought bitterly to prevent that happening, with its hardline tactics forged in the decades-long Troubles, which came to an end with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Johnson is also at odds with May and shares the DUP's dissatisfaction with the Brexit deal, with both promising to vote it down if and when the agreement comes to parliament next month as expected.

The DUP campaigned in favour of Brexit but is also faced with public concern in Northern Ireland about the prospect of a new hard border undercutting trade and the peace process.

The self-styled "Christian fundamentalist" party has softened its fiery anti-Catholicism and other harsh stances since it was founded by Protestant evangelical minister Ian Paisley in 1971.

But it still holds tight to what critics call its puritanical views, particularly on social issues such as abortion.

Its increased influence in Westminster has prompted warnings that a disrupted balance of power in Belfast could harm the delicate peace struck after decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.

Irish republicans Sinn Fein have blamed the DUP-May London power deal for the failure to restart a power-sharing executive with the DUP in Northern Ireland.

That arrangement collapsed in January 2017 because of a row over Foster's handling of a botched renewable heating funding scheme.

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