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Bradley turns up heat on DUP over Brexit deal

By Victoria Leonard

Karen Bradley will tell business leaders today that the country faces a choice between backing Theresa May's draft deal or going "back to square one on Brexit".

The Secretary of State will use a keynote speech in Belfast to ramp up pressure on the DUP who have called for the proposals to be scrapped.

On Friday, the Confederation of British Industry NI, Federation of Small Businesses NI, Institute of Directors NI and NI Chamber of Commerce threw their weight behind the Prime Minister's plan, claiming it "provides some much-needed clarity that local businesses have been calling for".

The Ulster Farmers' Union (UFU) has called for the DUP to consider voting for the draft plan, claiming a no-deal Brexit would be "absolutely disastrous" for the farming and agri-food sector here.

But DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson rejected claims his party was isolated, saying its position was supported by businesses and farmers worried at being cut off from markets in Great Britain.

Due to address business leaders on the 20th anniversary of the Northern Ireland Act, Mrs Bradley will say that the Government has agreed in principle the terms for "a smooth and orderly exit from the EU and the broad terms of our future relationship".

She will tell them: "The agreement preserves the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom, upholds the Belfast Agreement, and ensures people and businesses that rely on an open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland can continue living their lives and operating as they do now.

"The country now faces a choice, between this deal, the only workable deal that fulfils the will of the referendum, or back to square one on Brexit."

Mrs Bradley will say that the draft deal "delivers for the businesses and people of Northern Ireland" and the UK, providing a "close and productive future relationship with the EU" and making it possible to "sign and implement ambitious free trade deals around the world, while maintaining zero tariffs and zero quotas with one of our most important trading partners".

The Secretary of State will claim that the deal will "deliver in full on the result of the referendum" and "will see the UK take back control of our borders, our laws and our money".

"And it is a deal that will see us uphold in full our commitments to the people and businesses of Northern Ireland: protecting the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in all its parts, including the principle of consent, citizenship rights and human rights provisions; avoiding a hard border and preserving North-South cooperation and funding; preserving the Common Travel Area and reciprocal rights for UK and Irish nationals; and, of course, maintaining the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom."

Referring to the Stormont stalemate, Mrs Bradley will say that she is "doing everything I can to restore the institutions".

She will add that the Northern Ireland Act led to "relative peace" and "certainty on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland," creating prosperity that has been at "the forefront of our mind during the Brexit negotiations and is reflected in the deal we have reached".

Yesterday, the Irish Business and Employers Confederation (Ibec) and CBI NI Joint Business Council issued a fresh statement in which they broadly welcomed the Withdrawal Agreement, saying it would "protect the all-island economy".

CBI NI Director Angela McGowan said: "Companies across Northern Ireland simply could not cope with a no-deal Brexit.

"Such a scenario would risk jobs, investment and living standards. If ratified, this Withdrawal Agreement should provide a degree of certainty to the business community that Northern Ireland's economy will ultimately be protected".

Ibec director of policy Fergal O'Brien said "swift ratification is vital".

But Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said it is "certainly not" the position that the DUP is risking alienating its key supporters, such as business leaders and the UFU, by opposing the draft Brexit deal. "That's certainly not the feedback we're getting this weekend. We've had a lot of support from people who recognise that this deal has the potential to separate us from our business market in Great Britain.

"It's not something that many business people or farmers believe is in the best economic interests of Northern Ireland," he said.

"We are clear that this proposed deal breaches a red line for us in that it has the potential to create a border in the Irish Sea and to separate us increasingly from our biggest single market. We believe that will be damaging to the agri-food sector and to the economy in Northern Ireland, so whilst we respect the opinions of the business representatives and of the UFU we disagree with their conclusion and in so doing we know we have the support of many business people and farmers in Northern Ireland who share our concern about this deal."

He described the "idea that the DUP stands alone" in its opposition to the Brexit deal on the table as "nonsense".

"The UUP, the TUV, all oppose this deal," he said.

"How many votes did the UFU get at the last general election?

"The idea that the DUP stands alone in this is nonsense, there isn't a single unionist party so far that has backed this deal, and I have spoken to farmers and business people in my constituency over the weekend who support the stance of the DUP."

Mr Donaldson also revealed that the DUP is "inclined to support" the Finance Bill - the legislation which passes the Budget into law - despite suggestions that his party could withhold its backing to pressurise Prime Minister Theresa May into changing the draft Brexit deal.

"We will of course listen to the debate very carefully and consider any amendments that are brought forward, but in principle the Finance Bill is part of our confidence and supply agreement and as such we would be inclined to support the bill," he said.

"The Finance Bill delivers significant enhancements for expenditure and public services in Northern Ireland, and we need to take that into account."

Regarding the DUP's support for Theresa May and the confidence and supply agreement which sees the party prop up the Tory government in the Commons, he added: "The question as to who leads the Conservative Party is a question for that party, not for the DUP. The confidence and supply agreement is with the Conservative Party, not with the Prime Minister, and as such we will continue to work with the government and the focus is on the Brexit deal and on the forthcoming vote in the House of Commons, and after that we will of course reflect on the implications for our future cooperation."

DUP colleague, Nigel Dodds MP, said "Northern Ireland unionism stands united" and that it was "time to work for a better deal which does not undermine the integrity of the United Kingdom".

Meanwhile, TUV leader Jim Allister accused those supporting the government of "lackey syndrome" and hit out at the UFU.

"How the UFU in particular could join this chorus of embracing the break-up of the UK single market, on which they depend, is beyond rationalisation," he said. "I'm greatly disappointed that the UFU has abandoned the settled will of most farmers that they wish to leave the EU in all its parts."

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