Thursday 24 January 2019

Taoiseach 'must not panic', backstop needs to remain as negotiated - SF

  • 'The backstop must remain as negotiated' - SF's Mary Lou McDonald
  • She adds: Taoiseach needs to 'hold firm and not panic' in final stage of negotiations
  • UK government released details of new measures for Northern Ireland designed to win over critics of the backstop
  • If May's deal is rejected, 'Plan B' could be outlined next week
  • May still hoping to receive 'further clarification' from Brussels on backstop
  • Taoiseach says not acceptable for Stormont to have a veto over backstop conditions
Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: House of Commons/PA Wire
Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: House of Commons/PA Wire

Michael McHugh, Cormac McQuinn and Laura Larkin

Sinn Fein has said the EU would remain resolute on the border backstop, and urged Taoiseach Leo Varadkar "not to panic" in coming weeks.

President Mary Lou McDonald met chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels on Wedneday.

Standoff: Anti-Brexit protester Steve Bray, left, and a pro-Brexit supporter outside the Houses of Parliament. Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images
Standoff: Anti-Brexit protester Steve Bray, left, and a pro-Brexit supporter outside the Houses of Parliament. Photo: Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Europe has repeatedly said it will not renegotiate the backstop, which is designed to prevent the imposition of a hard Irish border and protect all-island trade if no better solution is found.

Unionists believe it would create a de-facto border in the Irish Sea and separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

Ms McDonald said: "Despite the chaos of Westminster and the brinkmanship of the British government it is clear that European leaders remain resolute.

"All whom we met today made clear that the Withdrawal Agreement and the backstop must remain as negotiated.

"The Taoiseach must be equally clear. He must not panic in the face of British Government threats or brinkmanship in the coming days and weeks."

She said there was a uniformity of approach and unanimity of purpose among all she had met in Europe to safeguard Ireland's interests, the rights of citizens and to protect its agreements.

"The EU has made it abundantly clear there can be no undermining of the Withdrawal Agreement and its backstop.

"The DUP continues to play a reckless game in its pursuit of a Brexit at the cost of our institutions, agreements and economy.

A pro-Brexit protester demonstrates outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London. Photo: Getty Images
A pro-Brexit protester demonstrates outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London. Photo: Getty Images

"The British government continues to attempt and placate DUP.

"The DUP is massively out of step with the majority opinion in the North in relation to Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement and the backstop."

Veto

Ms McDonald's comments came after it was reported today that the Northern Ireland Assembly would have the power to veto new EU rules if the so-called backstop came into effect post-Brexit under proposals published by the British government today.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is desperately seeking to build support for her Brexit deal ahead of a Westminster vote on the Withdrawal Agreement next week.

The backstop to avoid a hard border in Ireland is the main sticking point with Brexit-supporting MPs fearing it would lock the UK into EU rules indefinitely.

The proposals published today are designed to allay concerns over the backstop but they were rejected by Northern Ireland’s DUP, who Mrs May’s government relies on to stay in power.

DUP MP Sammy Wilson dismissed the document as “window-dressing” and a “meaningless piece of paper” insisting the backstop “has to go”.

Earlier British Cabinet Office minister David Lidington Mrs May’s de facto deputy said the measures in the document “make clear the continuing place of Northern Ireland within the UK internal market”

He added that the proposals “give the Northern Ireland Assembly - when, as we all hope, it is reconstituted and working again - a veto over introducing any new areas of law and policy into that backstop”.

Under the British government’s plans the Assembly – which collapsed almost two years ago amid a row between the DUP and Sinn Féin – would have a “strong role” if the backstop is ever triggered.

If a comprehensive EU/UK trade deal is not sealed by the end of the Brexit transition period in 2020, there would be a legally-binding commitment to "consult" with Stormont before deciding to either enter the backstop or ask for an extension of the Implementation Period.

The view of the Northern Ireland Assembly would then be presented to Parliament in Westminster before MPs took a final decision on the issue.

If the backstop does come into effect, the British Government said the Stormont Assembly and Executive would then be given a strong oversight role in its operation.

If the EU proposed changing any laws that impacted the operating of the backstop, the UK would have to consent to such a measure applying to Northern Ireland and the British Government has now committed to seek the agreement of the Assembly before signing off on any such change.

There was a cautious response to the proposals.

Earlier, Leo Varadkar has said it would not be acceptable for Northern Ireland to have a veto over conditions attached to the backstop.

Speaking in Ethiopia, Mr Varadkar said he had not been fully briefed on the position paper published by the British government today which indicated Stormont would be given a veto over new EU laws if the so-called backstop is triggered.

“The existing Irish protocol does provide for an input by the Northern Ireland Assembly already but I don’t think we could have a situation whereby the Northern Ireland Executive or Assembly had a veto power because that would essentially give one of the two communities a veto power over the other and that would create a difficulty,” he said.

Mr Varadkar said the people of Northern Ireland want to avoid a hard border which the current agreement provides for and said ratification for that deal is being sought now.

He said he did not have prior sight of the document before it was published but was given an indication some commitments would be made.

“They did indicate to us some weeks or months ago that they may make some unilateral commitments to Northern Ireland that would not contravene the Withdrawal Agreement but I didn't have prior sight of what was published today,” he said.

Mr Varadkar said he was supportive of an amendment proposed in the House of Commons today that would give the Uk parliament a chance to vote on triggering the backstop or extending the transition period if a trade deal has not been reached by 2020.

He said Ireland was happy with the proposal and had previously discussed it with the UK government.

“We are happy with parliament making that decision because either way it means there will be no hard border and that’s fundamentally the red line that we stand over,” he said.

Meanwhile, Business Minister Heather Humphreys was asked on RTÉ Radio is she thought the proposals would change anything.

She said: “I think it’s important that Northern Ireland do have a role and that’s why we want to see the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive back up and running again because at the minute there is no voice in Northern Ireland”.

She reiterated the government’s commitment to avoiding a hard border and also said: “Brexit is good for nobody. There’s nothing good in this for anybody and that’s why we need to help businesses to continue to trade and continue to carry on as normal.”

Asked about the British proposals a spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs said: “It is our hope that the backstop will not be used and instead a deep and comprehensive trade agreement that avoids a hard border will be in place by the end of the transition period.

“However, if the backstop is used, it will only apply unless and until a better deal is struck.

“It would be a matter for the UK how it implements it internally and under its devolved arrangements.

“Any measures couldn’t be at odds with what is set out in the Withdrawal Agreement.”

Additional reporting: PA

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