Foster will hold May to ‘legally binding’ changes to deal

Unionist leaders remain united in their opposition to proposed Irish backstop

 DUP leader Arlene Foster says legal text of the withdrawal agreement must be watertight for the United Kingdom. Photograph: Reuters

DUP leader Arlene Foster says legal text of the withdrawal agreement must be watertight for the United Kingdom. Photograph: Reuters


The DUP will hold British prime minister Theresa May to commitments to gain “legally binding” changes to the EU-UK withdrawal agreement, party leader Arlene Foster said in a New Year statement.

With Brexit certain to dominate politics in Britain and Ireland in the coming months, Ms Foster repeated that the DUP would not accept any exit “deal which will undermine the economic or constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom single market”.

“The prime minister has promised to get changes to the legally binding withdrawal agreement. We will be holding her to that commitment and we will work with the government to achieve a better deal,” she said.

“We are very mindful that any deal will bind the hands of future governments and prime ministers (and) therefore the legal text must be watertight for the United Kingdom,” added the DUP leader.

“For our part, we want to leave with a sensible deal which works for the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland in particular but also our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland. We want an orderly exit which implements the referendum result.”

Ms Foster said the DUP would work to restore the Northern Executive and Assembly which collapsed two years ago this month with the resignation of the late Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

“Sinn Féin continues to veto the formation of a new Northern Ireland Executive unless we first agree to implement their narrow wish-list of republican demands. Of course there is room for a balanced agreement but it is unreasonable to expect unionists to roll-over to every Sinn Fein demand,” she said.

The Ulster Unionist Party leader Robin Swann in his new year message sided with Ms Foster in reasserting that the proposed backstop designed to avoid a hard North-South border was unacceptable “as it would see Northern Ireland becoming a place apart from the rest of the United Kingdom”.

“It certainly will not deliver the best of both worlds, as purported by some,” he added.

Mr Swann said Northern Ireland was entering a year “full of uncertainty and challenge” where over the absence of an Assembly “Sinn Féin will blame the DUP and the DUP will blame Sinn Féin, but where at the end of the day, people’s belief and faith in politicians and politics is stretched to the very limit”.

Mr Swann said there must be a “recalibration of politics” in Northern Ireland if anything is to change. “The last few elections have been based and fought on fear and division,” he said.

“In 2019 politics needs to be based on delivery and service, where politicians serve the people rather than themselves. That requires politicians who must be both responsible and accountable.”

Traditional Unionist Voice leader Jim Allister said the imperative in 2019 was to ensure a “proper Brexit” and the rejection of “Mrs May’s disastrous backstop proposal, which would surrender Northern Ireland to a foreign customs union subject to EU laws and tariffs into which it would have no input, never mind control”.

Looking forward to the May local elections Mr Allister referred to the costly fiasco of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme and the censuring of DUP North Antrim MP for failing to declare two family holidays paid for by the Sri Lankan government.

Such matters, said Mr Allister, had “brought unionism to the low point of Sinn Fein, with all its odious past, setting itself up to lecture us on the standards required in public life”.

He added, “Those who brought brand unionism so low have much to answer for. The local government elections will afford an opportunity to recalibrate. TUV, untainted by these scandals, or the Stormont shambles, will offer a fresh start.”