June 9, 2017 / 1:57 PM / 3 months ago

Northern Irish unionists to open talks with May about support

FILE PHOTO: Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) Arlene Foster speaks to media outside Stormont Parliament buildings in Belfast, Northern Ireland March 6, 2017. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne/File Photo

BELFAST (Reuters) - The largest party representing Northern Irish unionists said on Friday it will go into talks with British Prime Minister Theresa May about supporting her Conservative Party which fell short of a parliamentary majority in a national election on Thursday.

May said she would form a new government with help from her “friends” in the DUP after an election debacle in which she unexpectedly lost her majority, days before talks on Britain’s departure from the European Union are due to begin.

The DUP - which defends Northern Ireland remaining part of the United Kingdom and takes a conservative approach to social issues - indicated that no deal was done, even though May asked Britain’s Queen Elizabeth for permission to form a government.

“The prime minister has spoken with me this morning and we will enter discussions with the Conservatives to explore how it may be possible to bring stability to our nation at this time of great challenge,” DUP leader Arlene Foster told reporters.

A deal between the DUP and the Conservatives would risk destabilising the delicate political balance in Northern Ireland and could significantly complicate talks due to start next week to restore the province’s power-sharing agreement.

“It has made the possibility of successful talks more remote,” said Naomi Long, leader of the non-sectarian Alliance Party. “There is now no credibility for the Tory government to be an independent chair, putting the entire process in real danger of collapsing.”

The shock result thrust the DUP into the role of kingmaker, with its 10 seats giving May a fragile but workable partnership.

While votes were still being counted, one of its members of parliament, Jeffrey Donaldson, called it “perfect territory” for the party, eyeing up a “very, very strong negotiating position.”

Donaldson suggested the DUP could support the government on a vote-by-vote basis, meaning a so-called “confidence and supply” arrangement was more likely than a formal coalition.

Foster, who did not take any questions from journalists, gave little away about what the DUP would demand in return for its support or how, as a fellow pro-Brexit party, it may seek to shape May’s plans to leave the EU.

She said the union binding England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be at the forefront of their minds, describing it as the party’s “guiding star”.

That was in stark contrast to Irish nationalists Sinn Fein which won seven of the remaining eight seats, although it does not take up its seats in Britain’s national parliament.

Sinn Fein described its best ever result in a national election as a further boost to the party’s ultimate goal of the British province one day joining a united Ireland.

Writing by Padraic Halpin; Additional reporting by Padraic Halpin; Editing by William Schomberg

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