DUP and Northern Irish businesses at odds over May's Brexit deal

Lisa O'Carroll Brexit correspondent
UFU CEO Wesley Aston: ‘We want to make sure we avoid a no-deal situation.’ Photograph: Rebecca Black/PA

A row has erupted between the Democratic Unionist party and Northern Ireland business and farming interests after the Ulster Farmers’ Union gave its backing to Theresa May’s Brexit deal, in the first sign of cracks in support for the unionist party’s policy at home.

The union, which represents more than 11,000 farmers, many of whom traditionally vote for the DUP, has called on Arlene Foster to vote for the Brexit deal, telling her a no-deal Brexit would be absolutely disastrous for the region.

The DUP has threatened to pull the plug on May and vote against the withdrawal agreement on the grounds it would create a “vassal state” and break up the UK.

But the UFU chief executive, Wesley Aston, told BBC Radio Ulster: “We want to make sure we avoid a no-deal situation. No deal for Northern Ireland agri-food and farming in particular would be absolutely disastrous and we have made that patently clear over this last while.”

His comments follow those from the UFU’s Ivor Ferguson that the “sheep industry would be finished” if there was no deal.

Ferguson told RTÉ on Friday that the trade deals Brexiters are hoping for will be ruinous to farmers, with lower standards and possibly cheaper meat coming in from the US and South America likely to wreck Northern Irish farming business. “A no deal would be devastating,” he said.

But their remarks and the support from about a dozen business organisations including the Confederation of British Industry in Northern Ireland has incensed leading DUP figures.

DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson told the BBC that those supporting the deal were wrong. “I don’t believe they have read the detail of this. They have not read the 500 pages. There are serious constitutional and economic implications of this deal for Northern Ireland,” he said.

The Irish Times reported on Saturday that Foster had expressed irritation with the attitude of businesses towards Brexit at a private meeting and argued they did not understand the threat the agreement posed to the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Angela McGowan, the CBI Northern Ireland director, said: “Companies across Northern Ireland simply could not cope with a no-deal Brexit. Such a scenario would risk jobs, investment and living standards.”

She wants the DUP to support the deal saying it would provide “a degree of certainty to the business community that Northern Ireland’s economy will ultimately be protected”.

Last week, farmers in Enniskillen, Foster’s home town, said sheep farming would be the first to go if there was no deal, with tariffs adding at least 20% to the price of a lamb – usually exported from the region to the rest of the EU.

One farmer, Hugh Maguire, said the DUP was playing politics with people’s livelihoods. “The DUP are backing themselves into a corner. They are not going to agree unless it’s their way or no way. They are holding the government to ransom,” Maguire said.

Farming is particularly vulnerable to tariffs, with latest government statistics showing farm income for lowland sheep farmers in Northern Ireland was as little as £7,812 a year, just over a quarter of the UK median household income of £27,200.