Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists have warned Boris Johnson that they will continue using their 10 Westminster votes to defeat his government as the prime minister seeks an early election to break the Brexit stalemate.
Although Mr Johnson needs a two-thirds House of Commons majority on Monday to secure a pre-Christmas election, senior DUP officials said privately that the party was unlikely to back the prime minister but would not make its final decision until the day of the vote.
Arlene Foster’s party has twice tilted Westminster votes on Brexit against Mr Johnson in the past week, shattering the alliance that has seen the DUP prop up the Conservative minority government since 2017. Addressing the DUP conference in Belfast on Saturday, Mrs Foster said the party was prepared to oppose him again. “Our votes mattered and our votes will matter in the coming days,” she said.
“On Brexit, we will not give support to the government when we believe they are fundamentally wrong and acting in a way that is detrimental to Northern Ireland and taking us in the wrong direction. We will oppose them and we will use our votes to defeat them.”
Mr Johnson has pushed for an election since the House of Commons disrupted his timetable for approving the new Brexit treaty before next week’s October 31 deadline for leaving the EU. With the bloc divided over the duration of an extension, the prime minister is struggling to achieve the Westminster majority needed to take the deal to the country in December.
The DUP has dismissed the new Brexit deal as a betrayal because it will necessitate customs checks on certain goods travelling into Northern Ireland from Great Britain, which it sees as an unacceptable barrier to trade within the UK.
The party also opposes plans to require only a simple majority vote of the regional assembly at Stormont — suspended since January 2017 — to prolong the Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland. Mr Johnson sought a DUP veto but that was rejected by Michel Barnier, EU Brexit negotiator.
The proposal to keep the region under European customs rules while remaining legally part of the UK customs territory was developed as an alternative to the “backstop” to protect the 1998 Good Friday peace pact by keeping open the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. The backstop, including an all-UK customs link with the EU, was rejected three times by the House of Commons.
The new Brexit deal is all the more difficult for the Northern Irish party because Mr Johnson himself pledged never to accept such checks when he addressed last year’s DUP conference as a backbench MP. No Tories attended the DUP conference but Mrs Foster’s criticism of the prime minister was muted: “Rather than have Boris with us today we have had to send him to the naughty step twice in the last week.”
Calling for a one-nation approach to customs, she hit out at conflicting messages from Mr Johnson on the need for checks. “The prime minister says there will not be checks but then we are told there will be.”
Nigel Dodds, deputy leader, urged the prime minister to “stick to your word” as the party said it will not vote for the treaty if it is not changed. “I am sure the government has taken note of its last two defeats in the House of Commons on Brexit.” Mr Dodds joked that Stephen Barclay, UK Brexit secretary, had asked for a speaking slot “but we politely declined.”
DUP activists criticised the prime minister for breaking promises not to accept any trade barrier in the Irish Sea. Wills Robinson, a county Tyrone farmer who has been in the DUP since the 1970s, said he was not surprised that the prime minister had let down the party.
“What he said last year and what he’s doing this year are two different things,” Mr Robinson said of Mr Johnson. “Look at his personality. He’s happy enough to do anything in my opinion to get to where he wants to get to.”
Ryan McCready, a Derry and Strabane councillor for the DUP, said any kind of trade barrier was unhelpful. “It would be very difficult to stomach. It’s not [an idea] that I would agree with and I doubt that he’ll get the votes in Westminster. I don’t think it’s a done deal yet.”