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Clear the air Brexit talks with DUP 'the start of a dialogue', say business leaders

By Ryan McAleer

Business leaders have said a "congenial" meeting with the leadership of the DUP has helped clear the air following recent derisory comments by one of its MPs.

East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson said last week that businesses who have publicly backed the draft EU withdrawal agreement were acting as "puppets" for the Northern Ireland Office.

The DUP has said the backstop provision within the agreement, which is designed to prevent a hard border on the island, threatens Northern Ireland's constitutional position in the UK.

Around 30 people from business and farming groups sat down with party leader Arlene Foster in Stormont yesterday, after which both pledged to continue to meet and work together in future.

The DUP delegation included MEP Diane Dodds, South Belfast MP Emma Little Pengelly and party chief executive Timothy Johnston.

Speaking later, Retail NI chief executive Glyn Roberts said businesses voicing support for the deal were "nobody's puppets".

Mrs Foster accused the media of "driving a wedge" between her party and the business community after she emerged from the meeting.

It's understood that the so-called 'media spat' was raised around midway through yesterday's discussion.

Aodhan Connolly of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium said the direct exchange had helped "clear the air" with the DUP.

"There was no bad feeling on either side. We do have to work with each other now as we have to work with each other in the future," he said. "We knew we would never be coming out of there changing their minds, but what we did do was make them understand where we were coming from. This is the start of a dialogue rather than just one meeting."

Over the weekend, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds claimed the withdrawal agreement was "worse than no deal".

A number of the business representatives who took part in yesterday's meeting said they left it feeling reassured by the insistence from the DUP leadership that the party was not actively seeking a no-deal scenario.

Stephen Kelly of Manufacturing NI said: "We're pleased that the party recognised that no deal would be enormously difficult for the Northern Ireland economy and is not the party's policy."

Mrs Foster has maintained that a "third way" is possible on Brexit beyond the binary choice presented by Theresa May of her deal or no-deal. The DUP insists it is not too late to renegotiate the terms. Mr Kelly said that while businesses were not closed to the idea, renegotiation would require more time, meaning extending Article 50 and therefore delaying Brexit.

"Nobody in the business community believes that this deal is perfect.

"If a better deal is possible by a renegotiation, if this one fails, then we'll do as we've done with this one. We'll look at it and we'll look at the practicalities and see whether it works for us or not."

Commenting yesterday, Mrs Foster stressed again the DUP's concern that the withdrawal agreement could legally bind Northern Ireland to EU rules and regulations with no democratic input.

"It is clear there is no enthusiasm for this withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons. Businesses want certainty. Therefore we should not waste the next few weeks in advance of the meaningful vote, especially when many parliamentarians have already made up their minds to reject the deal. We should use this time to work on getting a better deal which works for the UK and Northern Ireland."

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