Belfast Telegraph

DUP conference: Arlene Foster urges Boris Johnson to reopen Brexit negotiations as Nigel Dodds says deal 'worst of all worlds'

DUP leader extends olive branch on Irish language at party conference

Gareth Cross

By Gareth Cross

DUP leader Arlene Foster has called on Prime Minister Boris Johnson to reopen negotiations with the EU if he wants the party to support his Brexit withdrawal deal.

Mrs Foster made the comments when addressing her party's annual conference at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Belfast on Saturday.

She told delegates that there was no way her party could support the deal in its current form as it was bad for Northern Ireland and bad for the union.

Her deputy leader Nigel Dodds called the deal the "worst of all worlds".

The Prime Minister has been accused of betraying the party after reneging on his commitment not to to establish a customs border in the Irish Sea.

The DUP leader noted that Mr Johnson had already persuaded the EU to reopen negotiations once and urged him to do it again.

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DUP leader Arlene Foster pictured at the conference. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

“Rather than have Boris with us today we have had to send him to the naughty step in Parliament twice in the last week," the Fermanagh and South Tyrone MLA said.

"We will not give support to the Government when we believe they are fundamentally wrong and acting in a way that is detrimental to Northern Ireland and taking us in the wrong direction.

Without change, we will not vote for the Prime Minister’s agreement. It would be bad for Northern Ireland economically and will weaken the foundations of this great United Kingdom. Arlene Foster

"We do not consider the proposals to be in Northern Ireland’s longer-term interests, and they are clearly without support within unionism."

Mr Dodds told the party conference that the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland was "non negotiable" and urged the Prime Minister to "stick to his word" on Brexit.

The DUP entered a confidence and supply arrangement with the Conservative Party in 2017.

Addressing the DUP conference last year, Mr Johnson said that "no British Conservative Government could or should sign up to any such arrangement" which put a border in the Irish Sea.

The DUP's Westminster leader argued the PM's Brexit deal did exactly that.

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Nigel Dodds MP pictured at the the conference. Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

Mr Dodds said that Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay had offered to attend this year's DUP conference to sell the PM's deal but that the offer had been "politely declined" due to "his recent inability to recall what he actually negotiated".

The Referendum result was not for a Great Britain Brexit, it was for a United Kingdom Brexit. Nigel Dodds

"The government’s proposals put forward not only undermine the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, they would be disastrous for our local economy and our long-term economic well-being", the North Belfast MP said.

Mr Dodds outlined the ways he said the PM's deal would negatively impact on Northern Ireland including, applying to the EU Customs Code, businesses sending goods to Northern Ireland having to fill in customs declarations and having to pay EU tariffs on some classes of goods.

"It would be economic madness for Northern Ireland to stand by and allow ourselves to have such impediments put in the way of trade with our largest market within our own borders," he said.

Mr Dodds acknowledged the deterioration in relationships between the UK and Ireland in the past few years and said that any Brexit deal "cannot erect new barriers".

"We need our people to come together, not create more division," he said.

During her leader's address, Mrs Foster also addressed the Stormont impasse. The DUP leader said that she would be willing to support Irish Language protections to break the deadlock.

Sinn Fein's requirement for a standalone Irish Language Act is one of the key issues preventing the return of power-sharing.

Mrs Foster told the conference she had a message for Sinn Fein: "Stop making excuses. Stop boycotting. Get back to work".

She said it was "not incompatible to be an Irish Language speaker and a unionist", acknowledging a few may be in attendance at the event.

The DUP leader said to get Stormont back an agreement would need to be reached that "we all can support".

"I’ve already committed more than two years ago to seek accommodation and to legislate in a balanced way for language and culture, including for the Irish language," she said.

Mrs Foster said that the DUP recognised "there are many in Northern Ireland who love the Irish language and for whom it is an intrinsic part of who they are".

"So, my offer stands. If we can find a way to craft language and culture laws that facilitates those who speak the language, but does not inappropriately infringe on or threaten others, the DUP will not be found wanting," she said.

However Mrs Foster warned that "overall agreement needs to be a two-way street".

Irish language activists at Stormont

The DUP leader said that her party are ready for "any General Election that may come", with the PM hoping MPs will approve his plan to hold one on December 12.

Mrs Foster said it would be the "most unpredictable election outcome in the United Kingdom for a generation".

"Many beyond Northern Ireland will be eagerly watching the results to determine how Northern Ireland should be treated. Northern Ireland will need a strong, experienced and united voice that can speak for Unionism and get Northern Ireland moving again," she said.

"Every vote cast in every constituency will matter and the number of seats secured by this party will help shape the direction of Northern Ireland for our grandchildren."

Michelle O’Neill

In a statement issued following Mrs Foster's speech Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O'Neill said the DUP had yet to embrace "human rights and equality guarantees".

“Sinn Fein remains fully committed to the restoration of the Good Friday Agreement institutions on a firm, fair and just basis in the short period ahead," the Mid Ulster MLA said.

“This must be based on full respect for, and protection and expression of, the rights and identities of one another’s traditions which even-handedly afford our communities parity of esteem, respect and equality of treatment, and opportunity."

Mrs O'Neill said that "nationalists and republicans need a partner to negotiate with".

“This will only be solved by political leadership. It’s time Arlene Foster and the DUP returned to the table to engage meaningfully in negotiations for the first time since they walked away from talks and an agreement in 2018," she said.

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