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DUP fears Brexit deal will break up UK - Foster flies to London as May prepares to face Cabinet

By Our Political Staff

Theresa May's Brexit deal could lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom, the DUP has warned.

The party's chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson warned the deal would in the "long term" leave Northern Ireland closely aligned with the EU and could increase support for Scottish independence, saying "this is not the right Brexit".

He told BBC Radio 4's Today that his party "doesn't fear a general election", when asked whether it would risk Jeremy Corbyn, a long-term supporter of a united Ireland.

He said: "It's not about who is prime minister, it's not about who governs the country, it's about the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK, that is fundamental for us.

"And it is not just us, the DUP does not stand alone on this, we have many friends within the Conservative Party and indeed in some other parties, who believe this deal has the potential to lead to the break-up of the UK.

"That is not something we can support."

DUP leader Arlene Foster, speaking at Belfast City Airport on her way to London, said it was "worrying times" for the union and repeated that the DUP's confidence and supply deal was with the Conservative Party and not Prime Minister Theresa May.

The Prime Minister was faced with a Brexiteer backlash as her Cabinet began consideration of a deal with Brussels.

Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson and leading Tory Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested that the deal would give Dublin more say in Northern Ireland's affairs.

The agreement includes a so-called 'backstop' which would keep Northern Ireland tightly locked to European trade rules "unless and until" another means of frictionless trade is discovered.

Ministers were invited to Downing Street last night to read documents relating to the agreement before a special Cabinet meeting today.

The Daily Telegraph revealed that Attorney General Geoffrey Cox told Cabinet that Northern Ireland will be in a "different regulatory regime" under the customs backstop and subject to EU law and institutions, something that may "cross a line" for the DUP.

DUP leader Arlene Foster MLA said the deal "handcuffed" the UK to the European Union.

"We want a sensible deal which works for Northern Ireland, the United Kingdom and our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland. But our desire for a deal will not be superseded by a willingness to accept any deal," the former first minister said.

"An agreement which places new trade barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain will fundamentally undermine the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom.

"That is not acceptable. Over time, such a deal will weaken the Union. No unionist Prime Minister could argue that such a deal is in the national interest."

Mrs Foster said it would be "democratically unacceptable for Northern Ireland trade rules to be set by Brussels".

Northern Ireland would have no representation in Brussels and would be dependent on a Dublin government speaking up for our core industries," she said.

"The withdrawal agreement is a legally binding treaty which will shape our nation for the next generation. It will bind future governments and Prime Ministers.

"Without a clean exit clause, the United Kingdom would be handcuffed to the European Union with Brussels holding the keys. At least the United Kingdom people could vote to leave the European Union."

Mrs Foster added that she was "heartened by friends of the Union on both sides of the House and across the United Kingdom who have pledged to stand with the DUP in opposing a deal which weakens the Union and hands control to Brussels rather than Parliament".

"These are momentous days and the decisions being taken will have long-lasting ramifications. The Prime Minister must win the support of the Cabinet and the House of Commons. Every individual vote will count."

The deal follows intense negotiation in Brussels, with measures to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland the main stumbling block.

Remain-supporting Tory MP Anna Soubry told Today that "the best deal we have with the EU is the deal we currently have with the EU".

She said that a customs union had to go together with membership of the single market and its regulatory framework, saying "they have to be together".

She said: "If you speak... to British business they will tell you a customs union is important, but so is the regulatory alignment as well. That is what I need to see."

Irish broadcaster RTE reported that a "stable" text had been agreed on the thorny issue of the Northern Irish border.

The broadcaster said the deal involved one overall backstop in the form of a UK-wide customs arrangement - as sought by Mrs May - but with deeper provisions for Northern Ireland on customs and regulations.

A review mechanism is understood to be part of the text, but it is unclear whether that would meet the demands of Tory Brexiteers - including some in the Cabinet - who want the UK to be able to unilaterally walk away from the deal to prevent it becoming a permanent settlement.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said that the deal as reported would leave Northern Ireland "subject to the rules and laws set in Brussels with no democratic input or any say".

He added: "We object to that on constitutional grounds that our laws would be made in Brussels, not in Westminster or Belfast. That is the fundamental red line."

Mr Dodds said that he also had concerns about the customs arrangement, saying that any special provision for Northern Ireland was "designed to solve a problem that doesn't exist" because there are already border checks. He added: "It could even be solved by a protocol which all the parties pledge in treaty form that there won't be a hard border. This is a trap."

Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson urged his ex-Cabinet colleagues to "chuck it out", warning that the proposals made a "nonsense of Brexit".

He told the BBC: "For the first time in a thousand years, this place, this Parliament, will not have a say over the laws that govern this country. It is a quite incredible state of affairs."

Mr Johnson added: "For the first time since partition, Dublin - under these proposals - would have more say in some aspects of the government of Northern Ireland than London.

"I don't see how you can support it from a democratic point of view, I don't see how unionists can support it, and I don't see how you can support it if you believe in the economic and political freedom of this country."

And Jacob Rees-Mogg, chairman of the influential European Research Group of dozens of Tory MPs, said: "It is a failure of the Government's negotiating position, it is a failure to deliver on Brexit and it is potentially dividing up the United Kingdom."

"White flags have gone up all over Whitehall. It is a betrayal of the Union," he told the BBC.

He added: "It is a failure of the Government's negotiating position, it is a failure to deliver on Brexit and it is potentially dividing up the United Kingdom. It is very hard to see any reason why the Cabinet should support Northern Ireland being ruled from Dublin."

A string of diplomatic meetings are now being lined up to take place if Mrs May survives her Cabinet meeting at 2pm today.

Irish ministers have been told to be on standby for a special briefing from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste Simon Coveney. And EU ambassadors are expected to be talked through the plan by chief negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels this evening. At that point they will begin planning for a special summit of EU leaders on Sunday, November 25.

The special meeting today could potentially be a flashpoint for tensions between Brexiteers and Remainers around the Cabinet table, with speculation that Leave-supporting ministers including Penny Mordaunt, Esther McVey and Liam Fox could be prepared to walk out if a deal ties the UK too closely to Brussels.

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