Northern Ireland’s DUP holds fast against May’s Brexit deal

If Theresa May’s Brexit deal is to be saved, people like Ross Reed, who runs a storage company in Northern Ireland, could play a vital role.

Mr Reed was a close friend for 40 years of the late Ian Paisley, the founder of the Democratic Unionist party, a preacher who made his name over decades of conflict as the opponent of compromise.

But at a time when Northern Ireland’s politicians hold sway over the fate of Mrs May’s draft agreement to leave the EU, Mr Reed thinks the time of compromise has arrived.

“The agreement that’s on the table is not perfect but would any agreement be perfect?” he said, arguing that no one has come up with a viable alternative to Mrs May’s treaty.

Mrs May’s hope is that such arguments from Northern Irish businesspeople will help win round her nominal allies in the DUP, which provided her with a majority in Westminster, as she tries to beat the odds and win House of Commons backing for her deal.

Her problem is that at present the business case against a no-deal Brexit shows little sign of changing the DUP’s minds — or those of its supporters.

Mr Reed is as forthright in his unionism as he is in his warnings about no-deal.

Ross Reed: ‘I want to remain part of the UK for the next 200 years on the same basis as we have at the moment’

“I want to remain part of the UK for the next 200 years on the same basis as we have at the moment, he said in his offices at Interfrigo, a storage and distribution group in the northeastern town of Antrim.

He acknowledged concerns about the contentious “ backstop” in Mrs May’s deal — intended to prevent a hard border with the Republic of Ireland — that could keep Northern Ireland closer to the EU than the rest of the UK would be.

But he added: “I don’t want to come out of the EU with no deal, under any circumstances.”

His remarks reflect broader concerns among Northern Irish businesspeople who are worried about the economic damage a no-deal Brexit could wreak, particularly if it led to a hard border.

Enda Cushnahan: ‘We don’t want to operate in business with any increased cost or complexity’ © Paul McErlane/FT

“We don’t want to operate in business with any increased cost or complexity,” said Enda Cushnahan, who runs SDC, an Antrim-based manufacturer of lorry trailers for hauliers such as Eddie Stobart and retailers such as Sports Direct. “Sadly it’s looking increasingly likely that is going to be the case.”

SDC and a sister company employ almost 800 workers in Antrim, an area that voted decisively to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum and which returned Ian Paisley Jr, the late preacher’s son, with almost 60 per cent of the vote in the 2017 general election.

The uncertainty over Brexit did not deter a Chinese group, CIMC Vehicles, from buying the business just one day after the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016. But Mr Cushnahan admitted it was a challenge to explain the political crisis over Brexit to his colleagues in CIMC’s base in Shenzhen.

If business worries persuade the DUP to relent on its opposition to Mrs May’s deal then, so the theory goes, Eurosceptic Conservative MPs may also swing round and provide her with the majority she seeks.

But senior business figures said their efforts to quietly convince the DUP to change tack have not worked — despite efforts by industry and farm lobby groups to argue that the treaty opens a “best of both worlds” opportunity to trade with both the UK and EU.

The DUP itself insists it is not for turning, because of its opposition to backstop provisions that would keep Northern Ireland but not the rest of the UK within the EU’s single market for goods.

Gordon Lyons, a 32-year-old DUP rising star who represents Antrim in the regional parliament in Stormont, said such a scenario remains “toxic” to unionists, since it would “make Northern Ireland separate and distant to the rest of the UK and that isn’t positive in any way.

He added: “What essentially this will do is set up a trading barrier, whatever way you might want to put it across.”

Mr Lyons and his party remain unmoved by last-ditch proposals by Mrs May to give Stormont a say over whether the backstop takes effect.

“We reject the backstop full stop — and there’s nothing in the proposals that have come forward,” he said, speaking in his Stormont office rooms. “The assembly won’t be able to override the UK’s international legal obligations.”

Nor is opposition to the backstop confined to the DUP. Its rivals in the more centrist Ulster Unionist party are also firmly opposed to the measure.

Steve Aiken said there was no pressure from the electorate to back Theresa May © Liam McBurney/PA

Steve Aiken, a UUP member of the Stormont assembly for Antrim, said there was no pressure from the electorate to back Mrs May: “There just isn’t, because we’re not getting it, and if we’re not getting it I’m pretty certain the DUP aren’t getting it either.”

There is little sign of any backlash on the streets of Antrim town, about 18 miles from Belfast. Vincent Hamill, a retired engineer, said he was “very happy” with the DUP’s stance and urged the UK government to take a tougher stance with Brussels.

“I’d have said to them we’re going, that’s it, and we’re having no deal,” he said.

Joanne Adair, a housewife, said working people would not benefit much from Mrs May’s treaty. But she expressed fears they would be hit even harder by a no-deal Brexit. “It will take us years to get back on to our feet,” she said. “It’s been hard for years and I think it’s going to continue to be hard for years.”

Stormont itself is silent. This week marks two years since a DUP row with the Irish republican Sinn Féin party toppled institutions set up under the Good Friday peace pact.

The time in which those institutions operated marked an all too brief outbreak of relative consensus in Northern Irish politics. It was only at the end of his long career that Ian Paisley senior embraced power-sharing with Sinn Féin.


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