‘I believe that Europe are bullies’
DUP grassroots members dig their heels in when opposing Brexit deal
Conservative MP Boris Johnson and DUP leader Arlene Foster at the DUP annual conference in Belfast. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/ Getty Images
Darren McCormick, a farmer and DUP supporter from Co Fermanagh, sells milk to dairies south of the Border but is not fazed by heavy tariffs that would be imposed if the draft Brexit agreement collapses.
“WTO [World Trade Organisation] is better than what we have now,” he said, referring to the proposed deal and international trade tariffs that would apply should the UK crash out of the EU in March 2019.
“If that date passes without a deal, it is not the end of the world.”
McCormick and others at the DUP conference in Belfast on Saturday presented a united front against the proposed agreement, fearful that it could limit the UK’s ability to broker trade deals with other countries and leave Northern Ireland under the EU’s economic influence.
“People are being sold lies,” remarked Andrew Wilson, a Fermanagh beef farmer who said he was the only board member of the Ulster Farmers’ Union to oppose the draft deal.
Businesspeople and farmers were thin on the ground at the conference, reflecting the rift between the DUP and its base over the deal, though Wilson believed the deal had limited support among the grassroots.
“It is time to go back to get a better deal or it will be WTO,” said McCormick.
Many of the 600 delegates in the south Belfast hotel echoed the defiant views of their elected representatives: the backstop would push Northern Ireland closer to Dublin and Brussels and there was still something better between the “deal or no deal” choice being offered by the EU and UK government.
“We have always been of the position that no deal is better than a bad deal,” said Phillip Logan (29), juggling a toddler he was minding in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza Hotel.
“Walking away under WTO rules would be better than accepting a bad deal that five years or 10 years down the line, that Europe could use it as a stick to beat us with. We don’t want to be in that position because I believe that Europe would do that. I believe that Europe are bullies.”
Many delegates stopped short of saying DUP leader Arlene Foster should end the confidence and supply deal that props up British prime minister Theresa May’s minority Conservative government over the deal.
“The DUP will pull the plug if it gets to that stage. We are not at that stage yet,” said Logan.
Thomas Kerrigan, a septuagenarian from Co Tyrone, saw the deal as a “slippery slope to a united Ireland”.
“We feel there is some hidden agenda somewhere along the line,” he said.
The presence of guest speaker Boris Johnson, who resigned as British foreign secretary over May’s Brexit proposals, convinced the DUP faithful there were other Tories they could trust, should May or her deal fall.
Johnson’s calls to “junk the backstop” in a barnstorming speech fired up the members.
“Good on him,” said Ross McVittie (21) from east Belfast who cheered each of the UK MP’s jingoistic applause lines on the importance of Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.
“It is great to see him taking great interest in Northern Ireland that we are not some special case, that we are part of the United Kingdom and that we leave as one.”
Mark Wallace (28) from Ballymena thought Johnson’s speech contrasted sharply with Philip Hammond’s the night before, when the British chancellor tried to sell the proposed deal to the DUP.
“It was just trying to flog a dead horse,” said Wallace. “It didn’t wash with anybody in the room.”
“The DUP line is: our confidence and supply arrangement is with the Conservatives, not with Theresa May; get a new deal or get a new leader,” he said.
Stephen Andrews (28), from Fermanagh, was happy with the party’s message presented in Belfast and saw no risk in its entrenched strategy against immovable forces in Brussels or London.
“This deal is between the DUP and the Conservative government,” he said. “There is a lot to happen before the government will fall.”