Northern Irish kingmakers tell PM May: Don't sell out the United Kingdom

LONDON (Reuters) – The Northern Irish party which props up Prime Minister Theresa May’s government said on Friday that her negotiations had raised alarm bells and it would not support a Brexit deal that divided the United Kingdom.

Less than five months before Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29, a deal is at least 95 percent done but officials say they are still haggling over the fate of the land border between British-ruled Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.

The Times newspaper reported that the EU wants a customs border in the Irish sea in the event of a no-deal Brexit, citing a leaked letter from May to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which props up her government.

May told the DUP that she would never allow such a division of the UK “to come into force”, a line interpreted by the party as meaning that a clause would be inserted into the agreement that could potentially divide Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

“The Prime Minister’s letter raises alarm bells for those who value the integrity of our precious union and for those who want a proper Brexit for the whole of the United Kingdom,” DUP leader Arlene Foster said.

“From her letter, it appears the Prime Minister is wedded to the idea of a border down the Irish Sea with Northern Ireland in the EU single market regulatory regime,” Foster said.

The DUP has threatened to torpedo Brexit talks before. Nearly a year ago, its refusal to sign off on a deal on the border caused the temporary collapse of Brexit talks at a crucial stage. Negotiators later found a way to keep all sides on board.

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The Brexit deal – or the lack of one – will shape Britain’s prosperity for generations to come and have long-term consequences for the European Union’s global clout.

Both sides need an agreement to keep trade flowing between the world’s biggest trading bloc and the fifth largest global economy. The other 27 members of the EU combined have about five times the economic might of Britain.

“ALARM BELLS”

May has repeatedly said she would never accept a Brexit deal that divided up the United Kingdom.

But she told the DUP that the EU is still pushing for a so-called “backstop to the backstop” which would keep the province in regulatory alignment with the Republic of Ireland to avoid a hard border, the Times reported.

“We will not support arrangements that leave Northern Ireland separated from the rest of the United Kingdom and tied to the European Union’s customs or regulatory regimes,” Foster said in a letter to May which was published on Friday.

“It is totally unacceptable that there could be a Withdrawal Agreement which provided that Northern Ireland at any time in the future could be subject to the rules of the Customs Union or parts of the Single Market whilst the rest of the UK was not,” she added.

If May can clinch a deal with the EU, she still needs to get that deal approved by parliament. But it is unclear if she has the numbers: Around 320 votes in the House of Commons are needed to be certain of winning a vote.

Ever since her botched gamble on a snap election in 2017 lost her party its majority in parliament, May has relied on the DUP to govern.

May’s Conservative Party has 315 lawmakers. It relies on the 10 DUP lawmakers to pass legislation.

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