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3Novices:UK's May strikes Dh4.7bn deal for support to her government

LONDON // British prime minister Theresa May struck a deal on Monday to prop up her minority government by agreeing to at least £1 billion (Dh4.7bn) in extra funding for Northern Ireland in return for the support of the country's biggest Protestant party.

After more than two weeks of talks amid political turmoil sparked by her party's failure to win a majority in a June 8 snap election, Mrs May can now be sure her government can pass a budget and Brexit legislation.

Mrs May and Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster presided at the signing of a three-page so-called "confidence and supply" deal at Downing Street in London that is some way short of a more formal coalition agreement.

The deal means the DUP's 10 MPs will now vote in support of Mrs May's 318 Conservatives in the 650-seat parliament on the budget, legislative agenda, motions of confidence and Brexit.

In return, Mrs May agreed to least £1bn in extra funding over two years for Northern Ireland, agreeing to raise pensions annually by at least 2.5 per cent and to keep universal winter fuel payments for the elderly.

"I welcome this agreement which will enable us to work together in the interest of the whole United Kingdom, give us the certainty we require as we embark on our departure from the European Union, and help us build a stronger and fairer society at home," Mrs May said.

The prime minister laced her deal with an attempt to end Northern Ireland's political crisis by stipulating the money would only be released to a power-sharing executive in Belfast, upping pressure on the DUP to make an agreement with their Catholic nationalist rivals.

"The Conservative Party has recognised the case for higher funding in Northern Ireland given our unique history and circumstances over recent decades," said DUP leader Mrs Foster. "We welcome this new financial support of £1n."

The deal with the DUP, which won 292,316 votes in the election, will run for the life of the current parliament - due to end in 2022 - but will be reviewed after each parliamentary session, while most of the funding will be due in the first two years.

Even with the DUP's lawmakers onside, Mrs May's effective majority is slim and her position remains insecure though she has promised to get her Conservative Party out of what she termed the mess of the election.

Her Brexit strategy is under scrutiny and her future as prime minister is the subject of public debate with speculation that she could be challenged from within her own party within months.

As Mrs May negotiated the DUP deal, senior Conservatives such as former prime minister John Major raised concerns that an agreement with the Protestant party risks thrusting Northern Ireland back into turmoil by convincing "hard men" on both sides of the divide to return to violence.

The fear was that increasing the influence of pro-British unionists over the British government could create the perception that London was no longer an honest broker of the peace settlement reached in 1998.

The US-brokered 1998 Good Friday agreement brought an end to three decades of violence in Northern Ireland that killed 3,600 people.

The country has been in crisis since Sinn Fein pulled out of government in January, prompting an election in March and a series of missed deadlines to restore the compulsory coalition between Catholic nationalists and pro-British Protestant unionists.

"I will be returning to Northern Ireland to continue our discussions as we attempt to re-establish the Northern Ireland Executive," Ms Foster said. "Now, more than ever, political leaders, both locally and nationally, need to work together to find solutions for all the people we serve."

The latest deadline set by the British government for the parties in Northern Ireland to reach an agreement is Thursday. Sinn Fein said last week that "time was running out" given the lack of knowledge about the impact of any Conservative and DUP deal.

"Time is running short for the parties to come together and reach agreement to re-establish a power-sharing," Mrs May said. "Northern Ireland needs a functioning devolved government at this important time."

* Reuters
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