BELFAST (Reuters) - Northern Irish business groups lined up to back Prime Minister Theresa May’s draft Brexit agreement on Friday and put pressure on her allies from the British province to drop their staunch opposition to the plan.
May has faced widespread disapproval of the withdrawal deal unveiled this week both from within her Conservative party and from the 10 MPs from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) who prop up her minority government.
May hopes the support that began to emerge from UK business on Friday will help her sell the deal. In Northern Ireland, four major business groups welcomed the “much needed clarity” brought by the agreement that could offer Northern Irish firms closer alignment with the EU.
“While by no means perfect, it provides a platform to move onto the critical next stage of a comprehensive future trade deal,” said a joint statement from the Confederation of British Industry Northern Ireland, Federation of Small Businesses, Institute of Directors and Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce.
“We have been clear that a no-deal Brexit would be deeply damaging and would represent a very bad outcome for businesses, consumers and the economy as a whole.”
Their support follows endorsements from the province’s Food and Drink Association, main manufacturing body and crucially, Ulster Farmers Union, a group traditionally close to unionists which called on the DUP to vote in favour of it.
In response to their support on Thursday, senior DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson, whose job it is to ensure the party votes as one, said they were entitled to their opinion but that he did not think the groups had read the text in full.
The so-called Northern Ireland backstop, which aims to keep the border between the British province and EU member Ireland open, would all but leave Northern Ireland inside the EU’s single market if an eventual British/EU trade deal cannot maintain the currently frictionless frontier.
The DUP has threatened to pull its support from the minority government if the backstop means the province is treated differently from mainland Britain, fearing it would amount to an “annexation” by the EU and boost calls for a united Ireland.
Writing by Padraic Halpin in Dublin; Editing by Peter Graff