Theresa May fails to soften DUP’s Brexit stance on North visit

British prime minister says everyone knows why Sinn Féin MPs don’t take Westminster seats

British prime minister Theresa May visited Queen’s University in Belfast. Photograph: Liam McBurney/Reuters

British prime minister Theresa May visited Queen’s University in Belfast. Photograph: Liam McBurney/Reuters


British prime minister Theresa May, on a visit to Northern Ireland to drum up support for her Brexit deal, failed to soften the DUP’s continued strong opposition to the withdrawal agreement.

The DUP leader Arlene Foster accused the prime minister of engaging in a “propaganda” exercise while the Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald made clear there was no chance of her party ending its Westminster abstentionist stance to “save Ms May”.

Ms Foster, after meeting Ms May at Stormont on Tuesday evening, repeated the withdrawal agreement was “unacceptable and she will not persuade the DUP to support it”.

Ms Foster called on Ms May to “bin the backstop” and negotiate a better deal with the European Union.

“Now is the time to accept that the withdrawal agreement, as it currently stands, is damaging and that the United Kingdom cannot accept it. The conversation can then begin to ensure we get a deal that works for everyone,” said the DUP leader.

Ms May however held to her line that the Brexit deal was the best way forward. Ms May, running late from her earlier visit to Wales on Tuesday, travelled to Queen’s University in the late afternoon where she addressed academics and students and a range of representatives from the main churches and from the business, agriculture and voluntary sectors.

“If this deal does not go through what we will see is a return to division and uncertainty,” she told journalists at Queen’s.

“The message I have clearly heard here today from across the board, from the voluntary sector, from young people, from businesses, from the agricultural sector, from academics, is the importance of that certainty and the importance of parliament accepting this deal, so that we can move on to develop our future.”

During her visit Ms May declined to answer questions about whether or not Sinn Féin MPs should take their seats at Westminster to support the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

On Monday Taoiseach Leo Varadkar criticised Sinn Féin for not giving the green light to its seven MPs to go to Westminster to support the EU-UK deal.

“We all know the reasons why Sinn Féin don’t take their seats in Westminster and that is a matter for them. My job is about showing those MPs who will be voting on December 11th why it is a good deal for the UK,” said the prime minister.

Sinn Fein leader Ms McDonald who led a party delegation in talks with Ms May at Stormont on Tuesday evening was adamant there would be no change in her party’s refusal to sit in the House of Commons.

“Any notion that Sinn Fein MPs would ride in on their chargers and stop Brexit or save Mrs May are politically fanciful (and) I would to so far as to say politically illiterate,” she said.

Ms May was not prepared to state whether her £1 billion confidence and supply deal with the DUP whereby the Democratic Unionist’s ten MPs keep the Conservatives in government in power would be forfeited if the DUP voted against the withdrawal agreement on December 11th.

Ms May also disagreed with the comments of US president Donald Trump, who said the withdrawal agreement sounded “like a great deal” for the EU but might hinder trade between the UK and the United States.

“It is absolutely clear we can do free trade deals [WITH AMERICA],” said Ms May. “The political declaration which sets out the ambition for our future trade relationship with the European Union makes clear that we will be able to exercise an independent trade policy.”

This meant the UK could do trade deals around the world, she added. “In fact we are already working with the Americans - we have a working group that’s been looking at arrangements in relations to trade between the UK and the United States and it has met on a number of occasions now working through some of those issues.”

After speaking at Queen’s, Mrs May then travelled to Stormont to meet the DUP, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party and Alliance.

Ms May said the backstop, were it needed, only would be considered as a temporary measure.