DUP 'won’t back toxic deal unless backstop threat is neutered'

NIcholas Cecil

Protecting the United Kingdom is the “big issue” for the Democratic Unionist Party rather than backing a “toxic” deal to get Brexit over the line, senior MPs said today.

They warned that they would not agree to Theresa May’s Brexit plans unless the threat from the Northern Ireland border “backstop” to the UK’s integrity was neutered.

Jim Shannon, DUP MP for Strangford, accused the Prime Minister of having failed to deliver on his party’s “red line” for changes to the backstop to ensure Northern Ireland would not be splintered off from the rest of the UK.

Some members of the Tory hardline Eurosceptic European Research Group, including its chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg, are now signalling that they may back Mrs May’s “divorce” deal from the EU in a third vote rather than risk a long delay to Britain leaving, or possibly no Brexit. Mr Shannon told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “They have not all changed their opinion but they maybe see Brexit as the greater issue rather than the union. We see the union as the big issue, as a priority.”

While the DUP has been seeking to reach an agreement with the Government so that it could support the Withdrawal Agreement, relations have grown more tense in recent days.

“We had only one red line and that one red line was clear, the backstop, and that has not changed,” added Mr Shannon, stressing the need for legally-binding changes such as a time limit. The issue for us was always very simple, the union is the most important thing for us.” DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson was more blunt, telling Sky News All Out Politics: “Why would we vote for something which we believe is so toxic? Why would we vote for an agreement which cuts Northern Ireland off from the rest of the United Kingdom?”

Mrs May spoke to DUP leader Arlene Foster yesterday but failed to break the deadlock. The DUP now expects the Government to “rumble” on with the Withdrawal Agreement towards April 12, the day which the UK would now quit the EU if there is no deal agreed or longer extension, in the hope that more MPs can be pressurised into supporting it.

Mr Rees-Mogg and some other Eurosceptic Tories have indicated that they may now back Mrs May’s deal rather than risk losing Brexit altogether. But a hardcore of ERG members, believed to number around 25, are still refusing to fall in line by “holding their noses” to back it. ERG vice-chairman Mark Francois told Talk Radio: “It is not going to go through ... Nothing really has changed.”