Brexit deal critics gather in Belfast on eve of EU summit

AFP Britain, United Kingdom Nov 24, 2018, 09.00 AM(IST)

File photo. Photograph:( AFP )

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Opposition to a draft Brexit deal due to be approved by EU leaders will dominate a conference on Saturday of the Democratic Unionist Party.

Opposition to a draft Brexit deal due to be approved by EU leaders will dominate a conference on Saturday of the Democratic Unionist Party, the Northern Irish party whose support is vital to Prime Minister Theresa May's government and Brexit plans.

Britain's former foreign minister Boris Johnson, a staunch critic of the deal, will be attending -- along with Fabian Picardo, Chief Minister of Gibraltar, which is at the heart of a row that could also undermine Sunday's EU summit.

The DUP has propped up Prime Minister Theresa May's government ever since an election in 2017 in which her Conservatives lost their majority and were forced to turn to the right-wingers for help.

But that support is hanging by a thread over the party's opposition to May's draft deal with the European Union, which it believes will lead to a different economic status for the British province compared to the mainland.

All eyes will therefore be on Belfast for the party's annual meeting, where British finance minister Philip Hammond, who backs May's deal, is also expected, highlighting the central role the DUP now plays.

Seeds of divergence

Party leader Arlene Foster will insist that the government "must implement the referendum result of 2016" and "we must leave as one nation," according to extracts released by the party.

Foster will tell May that the draft agreement "fails her own key commitments" but will hold off on withdrawing the party's support for her, according to the extracts.

"As things stand we would be sowing the seeds of inevitable economic divergence from our largest market," she will add, while paying tribute to May's "determined efforts" in more conciliatory comments.

The DUP is in favour of British rule in Northern Ireland, and fears that any weakening of the bonds with the rest of the country could increase the chances of a unified Ireland.

It has fought bitterly to prevent that happening, with its hardline tactics forged in the decades-long Troubles, which came to an end with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Johnson is also at odds with his Conservative Party boss May, and shares the DUP's dissatisfaction with the Brexit deal, with both promising to vote it down if and when the agreement comes to parliament next month as expected.

The DUP's 10 MPs have been ferocious opponents to the "backstop" clause struck by British and EU negotiators to act as a legal guarantee for keeping the border between British Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland open.

May courts business

May met with Northern Ireland business leaders on Thursday in an effort to put pressure on the DUP to support the deal.

After the meeting, business boss Stephen Kelly from Northern Ireland Manufacturing, a lobby, said he hoped "that not just the DUP but all parties" would support the deal.

The party campaigned in favour of Brexit but is also faced with public concern in Northern Ireland about the prospect of a reimposition of a hard border.

The self-styled "Christian fundamentalist" party has softened its fiery anti-Catholicism and other harsh stances since it was founded by Protestant evangelical minister Ian Paisley in 1971.

But it still holds tight to what critics call its puritanical views, particularly on social issues such as abortion.

£1 billion for deal

The party was thrust into the spotlight after May's disastrous performance in last year's general election, when she was forced to seek their help to form a government.

The agreement came at the price of a promise of £1.0 billion (1.1 billion euros, $1.3 billion) in extra funding for Northern Ireland -- around half of which has been disbursed.

Its influence has prompted warnings that a disrupted balance of power in Belfast could harm the delicate peace struck after decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.

Irish republicans Sinn Fein have blamed the London power deal for the failure to restart a power-sharing executive with the DUP in Northern Ireland.

That arrangement collapsed in January 2017 because of a row over Foster's handling of a botched renewable heating funding scheme.