Election 2017

Tory chief whip in Belfast talks with DUP

Theresa May and Arlene Foster Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Theresa May is seeking to form a government with the support of Arlene Foster's Democratic Unionist Party

The Conservative Party's chief whip is meeting with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Belfast as talks over forming a government continue.

A Downing Street spokesman said Gavin Williamson was meeting the party "on how best they can provide support to the government".

Theresa May is seeking to form a government with the support of the DUP.

A former DUP MLA has said he does not expect a deal to last more than 12 or 18 months.

Alastair Ross told BBC Radio Ulster's Inside Politics programme that he did not believe any agreement between the Conservatives and the DUP would be a formal arrangement.

Image caption Former DUP MLA Alastair Ross said he does not expect a formal arrangement between the party and the Conservatives

"I would have thought the DUP would want to have as much flexibility in any arrangement as they can get, because they will not want to get tied into some of the less popular things," he said.

"They (the DUP) would perhaps support them (the Conservatives) in a budget and the Queen's Speech, but allow themselves the flexibility to take different positions to the Conservative Party if it's in the interests of Northern Ireland to do so.

"I'd be very, very surprised if there's any sort of formal arrangement."

'Held to ransom'

A Conservative peer and former leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) has warned Theresa May that she should get feedback from her MPs before entering into an arrangement with the DUP.

Lord Empey told Inside Politics: "My advice to the prime minister would be to wait until her backbenchers get into parliament next week and she tests opinion because, I can tell you I'm there every week, these people will not want to be held to ransom by any regional party whichever one it happens to be.

"And I have to say using phrases like 'price to be extracted' is exactly the thing that will upset them."

Analysis: Stephen Walker, BBC News NI political correspondent

The DUP find themselves as the kingmakers of Westminster but it is a position that they must use with great care. The party must be careful that whatever Conservative plans they back there must not be fallout in Northern Ireland.

One senior DUP source said he expected the arrangement to support Theresa May to be on a "case by case basis" but would stay clear of a formal coalition.

Personal relationships between MPs of the two parties are very good and last year the DUP hosted a champagne reception at the Conservative Party conference.

However the DUP, ever mindful of their own electorate, will enter the days ahead slowly. One senior source said that his party would be wary of backing the Conservative plans for welfare or social care if they adversely affected Northern Ireland while another said he hoped the party could make the Conservatives "more compassionate" in economic and welfare issues.

Arlene Foster's party may only take up a tiny space on the green benches of Westminster but if a deal is sealed they will have enormous influence across the entire UK.

Former Sinn Féin finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir told the programme an agreement between the DUP and the Conservatives could lead Northern Ireland into difficulties around the negotiations on Stormont's devolved institutions.

"I don't consider the British government to be honest brokers," he told Inside Politics.

"Having said that, if they are going to interfere even more or come down even more on the side of unionism then I think it would move us into very difficult terrain."

Image caption Sinn Féin's Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said a DUP/Conservative deal could move Northern Ireland affairs into "difficult terrain"

He also said that the government would be "bonkers" to get involved in some of the "thorny" issues that divide people in Northern Ireland, such as flags and parades.

On the upcoming talks to restore devolved government at Stormont, he said Sinn Féin would deliver on their election pledge to go back into talks "immediately".

"Any foot-dragging or excuses should not be tolerated," he said.

The Alliance Party's Paula Bradshaw said it was crucial Northern Ireland's other parties remain vigilant against the DUP having "undue influence" in the upcoming Stormont talks.

"It's up to us now to pick those papers up again and thrash out the finer details. It's up to all of us to scrutinise and be alert to any undue influence that the DUP are able to exert through the support of the Conservative Party."

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