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Brexit a crucial factor in whether institutions will be restored, warns Sinn Fein

DUP brands republican demand for EU special status as a bid to weaken Union

By Noel McAdam

Brexit will be a crunch issue in the negotiations to restore Stormont following next month's Assembly election, it has emerged.

Sinn Fein has made clear it intends to use the talks to ensure the British and Irish Governments agree to seek 'special designated status' for Northern Ireland when the UK leaves the European Union.

But the party refused to say whether it would be one of its red lines before agreeing to restore the Executive.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds warned: "Nationalists see special status as an opportunity to separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom, with a border in the Irish Sea.

"This proposal has also been launched by a party which has just cut off its ability to influence government.

"They have brought down the Assembly at a crucial juncture, denying the Executive a proper role, whilst also abstaining from Westminster."

New Sinn Fein leader here Michelle O'Neill said it was "not a day for red lines".

But she said that it was obvious Brexit will be included in the post-March 2 discussions, which will be chaired by London and Dublin.

Mrs O'Neill explained she believed the percentage of people in the province opposed to leaving the EU was now "a lot higher" than the 56% who voted in last June's referendum.

She said last year's poll was only the second time - following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 - that unionists and nationalists had voted in "common cause".

But unionists had realised that membership of the single market and the customs union were vital to future trade and economic stability across the island of Ireland, she added.

The day after meeting Prime Minister Theresa May in Dublin, Mrs O'Neill said London's plans would mean a European frontier across Ireland. "The British Government is on a collision course with the EU in which the future rights and interests of people here are regarded as collateral damage," she said.

Mrs O'Neill stated she had raised her arguments with Mrs May, but added: "Was she listening? I am not sure if she was or not."

She added the phrase that had emerged from Mrs May's talks with Taoiseach Enda Kenny of a "friction-free Brexit" did not mean anything in practical terms.

Dublin would be at the Brexit negotiations table and should use its position of influence as a veto to act "in the national interest", Mrs O'Neill said.

Sinn Fein deputy leader Mary Lou McDonald, who travelled to the launch in Belfast today of her party's campaign for special status for Northern Ireland, said it would be foolish to think the best interests of farmers, business and universities would not remain an ongoing issue following the election - but it should not be just a red line issue for republicans.

Former Education Minister John O'Dowd said Sinn Fein would be seeking to ensure there was a will in the British and Irish Governments to seek special status within the EU. Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir travelled to Brussels yesterday for a series of meetings with key officials as part of what Mr O'Dowd called a "diplomatic offensive". The EU over the years had come up with imaginative solutions to various problems "and where there is a will, there is a way", he added.

Mrs O'Neill said the DUP's description of the majority who had voted to stay as "remoaners" had been heard loud and clear in Brussels, and had not gone down well.

"It is regrettable, to say the least, that the DUP is continuing to stand with the Tories against the majority of people here and calling people 'remoaners' is an insult to those who voted to remain. The Tories and DUP cannot be allowed to drag the North out of the EU," she said.

SF MEP Martina Anderson accused her unionist counterparts Diane Dodds and Jim Nicholson, of "sabotage" in failing to take part in joint meetings and initiatives to discuss the impact of Brexit here.

They were also among the few, she said, who had voted against an amendment calling on the EU to continue to support the peace process, which 540 other MEPs had supported. "What is that all about?" she asked.

Mr Nicholson said the "sabotage" charge was "beyond parody" and that he found Sinn Fein support for special status for Northern Ireland hard to believe because the party "cannot even recognise NI as a legitimate entity and integral part of the UK".

"Since the referendum result in June I have been making the case that Northern Ireland's voice must be heard, and that if the Government does not get the Brexit negotiations right, Northern Ireland will have the most to lose," he said.

TUV candidate Richard Cairns said: "Those who refuse to accept the outcome of the referendum are rejecting UK sovereignty. The idea Sinn Fein believes in some sort of special status for Northern Ireland as a result of the referendum is nonsense."

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