Brexit: Arlene Foster says DUP can’t be ‘bribed’ to back Theresa May’s deal

Arlene Foster has described any suggestion DUP support for the Brexit withdrawal agreement could be bought with further major investment pledges for Northern Ireland as “offensive”.

At Stormont for talks with the prime minister, the DUP leader was asked at a press conference whether another “bribe” would win her party round – a reference to the £1 billion secured by the DUP as part of its confidence and supply deal with the Tories at Westminster.

Theresa May at Queen's University before she left for talks with the main political parties at Stormont

Theresa May at Queen's University before she left for talks with the main political parties at Stormont

“We didn’t take a bribe in the first place – the confidence and supply agreement was for all of the people of Northern Ireland,” she replied.

“Some of that money has already been delivered. We look forward to the rest of that money being delivered for all of the people of Northern Ireland.”

Mrs Foster added: “It is very offensive to raise this in terms of money. We are talking about the constitutional and economic long-term future of Northern Ireland – so the answer is no.”

Mrs Foster suggested opposition to Mrs May’s deal at Westminster was “coalescing” around the Irish border backstop proposal – the controversial measure that could see Northern Ireland operate under a different regulatory regime to the rest of the UK to ensure a free-flowing border.

Prime Minister Theresa May meets with young farmers and students at Queen's University in Belfast, during her visit to Northern Ireland

Prime Minister Theresa May meets with young farmers and students at Queen's University in Belfast, during her visit to Northern Ireland

“So if she ditches the backstop there is every reason to believe that this withdrawal agreement could go through,” she added.

All five of the main Stormont parties held talks with Theresa May at Stormont House on Tuesday.

The prime minister heard a range of views, with the DUP and Ulster Unionists voicing opposition to the deal and Sinn Fein, SDLP and Alliance all stressing the importance of maintaining the backstop.

Ahead of the meeting, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said: “No matter what happens on the 11th of December, no matter what happens in the House of Commons, the backstop needs to be banked.

“It needs to be banked in the event of an extension of Article 50, it needs to be banked in the event of a people’s vote or another election, or any of those outcomes.

“People here will not be used in the political machinations that are going in Westminster – we need to be protected.”

Mr Eastwood again criticised the position taken by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has voiced concern about the emergence of trade barrier down the Irish Sea.

“I think he has called this wrong, because he is starting to talk about a border down the Irish Sea and the integrity of the United Kingdom,” said Mr Eastwood.

“This is not about any of that, thi s is about economics, this is about protecting people here from a hard border, because we all know how dangerous a hard border would be in Ireland, not just economically but politically as well.”

He insisted nothing in the deal undermined the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom, insisting the principle of consent outlined in the Good Friday Agreement was “sacrosanct”.

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann urged an extension of Article 50 to give the government more time to strike a better deal.

He said the current agreement would leave Northern Ireland as a “place completely apart” from the rest of the UK within five to 10 years.

In an appeal to Mrs May, Mr Swann said: “Take the time, put plans in place to allow for the extension of Article 50, to allow further negotiation so we can get a deal that actually works, because one thing that we don’t want, that we realise doesn’t work for Northern Ireland, is no deal.

“This is the first time the prime minister has been to Northern Ireland since the Withdrawal Agreement was published and her government and she has said that this will affect Northern Ireland the most as an integral part of the United Kingdom.

“So let’s take time. Once she has heard the concerns from all of the Northern Ireland let’s see how we can take it to the next step.”

Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry said the backstop had to be retained as a “safety net”.

“It is important that we do bank the backstop,” he said.

“It’s clearly our preference that we stay in the European Union, we don’t believe that there is any such thing as a good or sensible Brexit.

“But right across the community in Northern Ireland – including most of the political parties, most of the business community and most of society – it is very, very clear that people do not want to see a no-deal situation, which would be a complete catastrophe for our society.”