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Hammond visits Belfast in move to get DUP and NI businesses on side

By Ryan McAleer and Michael McHugh

The Government is considering providing extra border backstop assurances to the DUP, the Chancellor said yesterday.

Philip Hammond said ministers have a number of choices through the parliamentary process, which include extending the Brexit implementation period ahead of the permanent relationship.

That could avoid having to use a backstop, in which the UK would continue to follow EU regulations relating to trade across the Irish border - a solution which is adamantly opposed by the DUP.

Mr Hammond met DUP leader Arlene Foster and her deputy Nigel Dodds in the lobby of a Belfast hotel before holding a meeting with them.

He said he was delighted to be there and relations between the two parties were good.

The meeting, which lasted 30 minutes, came ahead of Mr Hammond's speaking appearance at the DUP's pre-conference dinner - a behind-closed-doors gathering.

Earlier, the Chancellor visited a school in Moira, Co Down and told the BBC: "I would much prefer to see us extending the implementation period and I am sure my DUP colleagues would take the same view.

"So we need to look at how we can provide reassurance about how we will use the options that the agreement gives us."

The DUP has promised to oppose the Prime Minister's draft Withdrawal Agreement with the EU over its concerns about the Irish backstop arrangement, which is designed to prevent imposing a hard border.

It would mean Northern Ireland continuing to follow EU regulations relating to matters like cross-border trade.

The DUP is determined to prevent any divergence from the rest of the UK.

The Chancellor met the owners of 20 small businesses in Belfast during a walkabout in the city centre followed by a round-table discussion hosted by the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).

Chair of the FSB in NI, Tina McKenzie, said Mr Hammond appeared to be in "listening mode" during the discussion.

She said he expressed interest in the FSB's proposal to make Northern Ireland an "enhanced economic zone", which the FSB chair argues could turn the province into the "Singapore of the Western Hemisphere" through the ability to trade freely into the UK market and throughout Europe.

The meeting also touched on business rates, the absence of an Executive and support for Belfast city centre. Last month the Chancellor announced £2m funding from the Treasury toward the recovery of Belfast city centre in the wake of the Primark fire.

Yesterday he said: "During my visit to the city centre today, I was impressed by the resolve of the Belfast people to recover as quickly as possible after the Bank Buildings fire. It has had a significant impact for many local businesses and I understand the urgency of opening up full access again and completing the regeneration works."

International Trade Secretary Liam Fox also visited Northern Ireland yesterday and said language in the draft UK-EU Political Declaration, which refers to looking at technology to address the Irish border, was "encouraging".

Manufacturing NI said that a survey among its members showed 94.4% in support, with just 21 firms opposed to the agreement.

DUP MP Sammy Wilson yesterday suggested that businesses were "swallowing the Prime Minister's propaganda", following comments earlier in the week, where he accused firms of being "puppets" for the NIO.

But Mr Fox told the Belfast Telegraph: "I think people can look at the information and make up their own minds.

"I think businesses will operate in the way that best suits their profitability and their own particular commercial future.

"The Prime Minister has set out a deal which not everyone is going to like equally. But it's a deal that is designed to provide a calm and rational transition from our membership of the European Union to being outside.

"I think businesses can see the benefit of that transition. Certainly businesses I've been talking to today have been very supportive," he said.

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