Belfast Telegraph

DUP refuse to be pressured into backing Brexit deal as deadline looms

DUP leader Arlene Foster (Danny Lawson/PA)
DUP leader Arlene Foster (Danny Lawson/PA)
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

The DUP has refused to be bounced into backing Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal as pressure mounted on the party ahead of Thursday's EU summit.

Downing Street insiders said that an agreement did not seem imminent but that talks were continuing overnight.

The Prime Minister was hoping to secure the DUP’s support to have a deal in place before he heads to Brussels on Thursday.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier reportedly told EU 27 ambassadors that everything had been agreed with London except VAT.

But a DUP source said: “There are still significant gaps that need to be filled.

“Our party will not be bounced into anything. We are immune to pressure. We haven’t given way to it in the past, and we won’t now.

“If there is a deal worthy of support, we will give it, but it will have to be the right deal for Northern Ireland.”

The DUP source said that customs arrangements and consent remained the major stumbling blocks to a deal.

While Arlene Foster’s party appeared unconvinced by what is on offer, the hardline European Research Group (ERG) seemed to be nearer embracing the Prime Minister’s proposals.

The DUP denied reports that it was deeply divided on a deal. Sir Jeffrey Donaldson MP tweeted: “I have been at every meeting of our Parliamentary team on Brexit and there is no split within the DUP on this. Wishful thinking on the part of some perhaps but without foundation.”

He was responding to claims that the party’s MPs were split 7-3 in favour of a deal with Sammy Wilson and Nigel Dodds against the proposals on the table.

DUP MP Gavin Robinson said: “We will judge the detail across our criteria of the economic and constitutional integrity of the UK.”

After a day of heightened expectation, the chances of reaching a deal declined last night.

Addressing the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, the Prime Minister compared the situation to climbing Mount Everest. He said the summit was “not far” but we were still surrounded by “cloud”.

After a meeting in Downing Street, ERG chairman Steve Baker told Sky News: “We have made great progress in our discussions with Number 10.

“We know there will be compromises, but we will be looking at this deal in minute detail, with a view to supporting it. But until we get that text, we can’t say.”

Earlier, ERG deputy chair Mark Francois did not rule out the group backing a deal opposed by the DUP.

“Throughout the whole long process, the ERG and the DUP have always been strong allies. We constantly will take the DUP view very firmly into account, particularly on any matters which relate to Northern Ireland and the Republic,” he told the BBC.

But asked if the ERG would walk away from a deal the DUP didn’t support, Mr Francois replied: “The deal-breaker would be whether or not the deal — if we get one — takes us out of the EU at Halloween.

“That is the acid test. If it really means we leave the EU genuinely at Halloween, ERG chair Steve Baker and I will be the first two blokes in the Aye lobby. If it means we don’t, we will be doing something else.”

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said Mr Johnson had on Wednesday afternoon updated his Cabinet, which gave its “full support” to get a deal ahead of the EU summit after a “positive discussion”.

“He said there was a chance of securing a good deal but we are not there yet and there remain outstanding issues,” the spokesman added.

(PA Graphics)
(PA Graphics)

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay confirmed that Mr Johnson will write a letter asking for an Article 50 extension if no deal is in place by Saturday, something the Prime Minister had repeatedly ruled out.

Mrs Foster yesterday rejected suggestions that the DUP had accepted proposals over Stormont consent for arrangements. She added that there “needs to be a sensible deal which unionists and nationalists can support”.

Saturday is a key date for the Prime Minister, with the Benn Act — passed by MPs trying to prevent a no-deal Brexit — stating he must write to Brussels asking for a delay if Parliament does not agree to a deal by then.

Mr Barclay said Mr Johnson would write to Brussels asking for an Article 50 extension.

“I can confirm, as the Prime Minister has repeatedly set out, that firstly the Government will comply with the law, and secondly it will comply with undertakings given to the court in respect of the law,” he said.

Mr Barclay confirmed that the Government “will abide by” what is set out in that letter, following fears the Prime Minister could try to scupper an extension with a second contradictory letter or request to a member state to block an extension.

The Brexit Secretary reiterated the Government’s commitment to leaving the EU on the current October 31 deadline, despite the act demanding a delay to the end of January if MPs do not approve a deal by Saturday.

If Mr Johnson succeeded in bringing a deal back from Brussels, he would then face a battle to do what Theresa May failed to do three times and get it approved by Parliament.

Pressure to sign off on a draft agreement is peaking.

A legal text needs to be published ahead of the summit if the EU27 are to consider ratifying the Withdrawal Agreement at the two-day event.

Their approval would allow Mr Johnson to put the deal to MPs in a proposed extraordinary sitting of Parliament on Saturday, between 9.30am and 2pm.

It would be the first sitting on a Saturday for 37 years.

During the weekend session, MPs would be able to back or reject any deal presented to them, or discuss what to do next in the Brexit saga.

French president Emmanuel Macron said a deal could potentially be agreed on Thursday. “I want to believe an agreement is being finalised and that we will be able to endorse it,” he said at a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

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