N.Ireland's powerful DUP vows to keep wary eye on Brexit talks


Belfast (AFP)

Northern Ireland's hugely influential Democratic Unionist Party gave grudging approval Friday to a Brexit deal that it had threatened to scupper, but warned there was "still more work to be done".

The pro-Brexit party, an ardent supporter of the United Kingdom, had intervened Monday after it appeared that Prime Minister Theresa May had reached a deal with Ireland to move the talks forward.

Its disapproval revealed the power of an ultra-conservative party whose 10 MPs effectively keep May in government after she lost her Conservative parliamentary majority in a June vote.

"Northern Ireland has specific interests in these talks, we are absolutely right to make our influence felt in that regard," Democratic Unionist lawmaker Christopher Stalford, 34, told AFP in his office in Northern Ireland's regional parliament.

The DUP's chief concern was that Northern Ireland would be given a different regulatory status from the rest of Britain in order to avoid a "hard" border with Ireland.

The unionists worry that any divergence with Britain would encourage nationalists to push for a united Ireland.

The agreement struck on Friday states that Britain will maintain full alignment with EU trade rules if no solution can be found to maintain an open border in Ireland and protect the 1998 peace deal that brought about and end to decades of violence.

"We're pleased to see those changes because for me it means there's no red line down the Irish Sea, and we have the very clear confirmation that the entirety of the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union, leaving the single market, leaving the customs union," DUP leader Arlene Foster said.

- 'Stood up for UK' -

Jonathan Tonge, a professor of political science at the University of Liverpool, told AFP that the DUP "had to restate this red line... because a special arrangement for Northern Ireland is a slippery slope that leads to a united Ireland."

In the south Belfast constituency represented by Stalford, residents on Sandy Row, a street at the heart of a staunchly unionist neighbourhood, supported the DUP line.

Jim Watt, an IT instructor who usually votes for the more moderate Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), said he believed that nationalists, including the perennial political foe Sinn Fein, are using the border question and the peace process "to undermine Brexit".

Sinn Fein, a rival party but also a former partner in Northern Ireland's power-sharing executive, called for the reunification of Ireland the day after the Brexit referendum on June 23, 2016.

The DUP accuses Dublin of paying too much attention to such voices, a claim that Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar denied when welcoming Friday's deal.

"There is no question of us trying to exploit Brexit to move toward Irish unity without consent," he said.

In Sandy Row, amid the Union Jacks and murals celebrating Britain's history in the province, unionists praised Foster's steadfast attitude.

"Arlene Foster and the DUP members reacted well, they stood up for Northern Ireland but also for the UK as a whole," Nikki Johnston, 43-year-old teacher, told AFP at a community centre next to Stalford's office.

Unionists warned that granting Northern Ireland special status would have paved the way for other regions, notably Scotland, to demand similar treatment, endangered the cohesion of Britain.

"Never bounce any party in Northern Ireland," Stalford said.

"If you try to push people in one direction -- in this part of the world anyway -- it makes them more determined to go the opposite one."