DUP MP Sammy Wilson has been accused of “grasping at straws” after criticising NI business and farming leaders over the draft Brexit deal.
In an article in the News Letter, Mr Wilson said groups who have backed the deal were “dancing to the government’s tune”.
“These groups are the puppets of the Northern Ireland Office,” he said.
But Richard Hogg of Manufacturing NI said businesses and farmers could think and talk for themselves.
The clash came as the cabinet met for the first time since two members quit over Prime Minister Theresa May’s EU withdrawal agreement.
The PM appears to have seen off the threat of being ousted in a confidence vote of her own MPs, for now.
But she faces a revolt from the Democratic Unionist Party, whose 10 MPs keep her government in power.
The DUP abstained in Monday night’s Budget votes as a warning shot over what they say are her broken promises on Brexit.
Painted into a corner?
Under the terms of their House of Commons deal, agreed after Mrs May lost her Commons majority in last year’s general election, the DUP is supposed to back the government on Budget matters and on confidence votes.
But Mr Wilson, the party’s Brexit spokesman, said Mrs May’s Brexit agreement with Brussels breached a “fundamental” assurance that Northern Ireland would not be separated from the rest of the UK.
“We had to do something to show our displeasure,” he told BBC2’s Newsnight.
But Mr Hogg rebutted suggestions that NI businesses were dancing to the government’s tune.
“We don’t need other people to tell us what to do,” he said. “We listen to everybody and then we make our own minds up.”
“We know how to run businesses, we know what we’re doing and we’re very, very hard to shove into a corner.
“We don’t listen to other people without having our own information – we’re hard to steer and I think Sammy’s being a bit disingenuous.
“They’ve [the DUP] painted themselves into a corner again and they can’t get out and there’s no point blaming us for it.”
Mr Wilson also claimed that business and farming groups had been shown the Brexit deal before it was unveiled “encouraged to go out and promote it, which they have done, and quite clearly they haven’t thought of the consequences for their own members.”
Meanwhile, the Director of Northern Ireland’s Retail Consortium Aodhán Connolly posted a light-hearted response to Mr Wilson’s comments on Twitter.
‘DUP showing they are not on board’
By Laura Kuenssberg, BBC political editor
The DUP says this is not the end of the arrangement of so called “confidence and supply” agreement, where the government can formally rely on support from the Northern Irish unionists’ 10 votes.
But the fabric of that arrangement is certainly torn… and once faith is broken between the two, it’s hard to see how it could be restored.
Remember, there’s a really straightforward reason why this matters so much. Theresa May does not have enough votes on her own to pass the Brexit deal.
The partnership with the DUP was set up to try to make sure she could. If it collapses completely then her central task becomes yet more seemingly impossible, even if those 48 letters never come.
Mr Hogg said that was not the case.
“We did not see any of the agreement beforehand, we saw it the same as everybody else, after it came out,” he said.
“We asked, we asked plenty of times but we were never told. We’re naturally nosey because we’re businesses.”
He said the Brexit deal was not perfect “but it’s what we have”.
‘Miming the words’
A joint statement has been issued by farmers unions across the UK, including the Ulster Farmers Union (UFU), urging unity to get the Brexit plan through the Commons.
“While the draft deal is not perfect, it will ensure there are no hard barriers on the day we leave the EU,” said the unions.
“This opportunity needs to be taken.”
In the News Letter article, Mr Wilson also criticised the UFU for its support of the Brexit deal.
He accused it of “simply miming the words which have been given to them by the NIO”.
This was rejected by the union.
“The UFU did not receive advance sight of the UK’s withdrawal agreement before it was published,” it said.
“No UFU staff or members of the leadership team have been contacted by government officials, or anyone connected to the government, to ask us to speak out in support of the deal.
“The UFU reached its position based on the organisation’s long-held understanding that a ‘no deal’ Brexit would be disastrous for farming in Northern Ireland.”