Theresa May’s Northern Irish Ally Faces Pressure Over Brexit

(Bloomberg) -- Theresa May depends on Arlene Foster to help save her Brexit deal. And Foster is facing pressure to cave -- even in her home district.

Foster leads the Democratic Unionist Party, which keeps May in power in London. Five hundred miles away, lies Fermanagh, where she grew up, an area close to the Irish border ravaged by decades of violence during the so-called Troubles. Many there want her to back May’s Brexit plan.

“It has got to be either May’s deal or no deal,” said Paul Breen, 46, from Brookeborough, a village close to Enniskillen, Foster’s home town. “Arlene being from Fermanagh should be aware of all the great benefits brought by peace and how content everybody seemed pre-2016 to just let things roll on as they were. Why risk that?”

The DUP considers Enniskillen as quintessentially British as London. Its ten lawmakers say May’s accord with the European Union risks setting up barriers within the U.K., imperiling the union. The U.K. government has fired back that the deal is the best available, a version of there-is-no alternative-strategy -- shortened as TINA and often used by former British leader Margaret Thatcher.

To help avoid the return of checkpoints on the Irish border, May’s deal suggests the entire U.K. will remain in a customs union with the EU until a better solution is found. Moreover, Northern Ireland, which voted to remain in the bloc, will stay in a deeper customs union.

Goods Check

In addition, it will keep many of the EU’s rules even if the rest of the U.K. moves away. That means checks on goods going to Northern Ireland from mainland Britain, the DUP says.

Theresa May’s Northern Irish Ally Faces Pressure Over Brexit

“Without a clean exit clause, the United Kingdom would be handcuffed to the European Union with Brussels holding the keys,” said Foster.

The DUP won’t give in easily. Three quarters of its voters opted to back Brexit in the 2016 referendum, and the rival Ulster Unionist Party backs Foster’s view of May’s deal. On Monday in London, the party refused to vote for May’s Finance Bill, a warning shot to the government.

“Having taken the position they have for the last 18 months, I suspect the idea that the DUP will blink at this stage is for the birds, ” said Richard Bullick, a former adviser to Foster. “In the context of the UUP and other unionists politicians’ positions, it’s had to imagine that the views of the business organizations are likely to make a difference. ”

Business Pressure

Business and farmer groups favor the deal, with the Ulster Farmers Union on Tuesday adding its support to May. Some European officials privately hoping such pressure will push the party to abstain on next month’s parliamentary vote, rather than torpedo it outright and propel the U.K. toward a chaotic exit.

Some officials believe a hard Brexit, which leads to a return of checkpoints on the border, will bolster nationalist sentiment in the region and ultimately make a united Ireland more likely. In Foster’s district, there’s some agreement.

“The DUP need to support this deal; it is an excellent deal for Northern Ireland,” said Dean McKenzie, 29, from Enniskillen. “Northern Ireland within the Union is safe until a majority here say otherwise, but Arlene and the others are making the case for a United Ireland even more attractive.”

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