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EU special status must mean no cut in funds: SDLP leader Colum Eastwood

By Noel McAdam

Special status for Northern Ireland in the European Union after Brexit must include the ongoing flow of cash from Brussels, the SDLP has insisted.

At an event in Newry yesterday the party also proposed a revamp of the current north-south bodies to act as a gateway to Europe for the Stormont Executive.

Leader Colum Eastwood has suggested measures to develop an all-island economy, building on the current Common Travel Area.

He added that attaining special status for the province post-Brexit would be top of the party's agenda in negotiations after the election.

Referring to Brexit as a "seismic event on the political Richter scale", he argued that its magnitude cannot be underestimated, but special status would mean Northern Ireland's vote to remain in the EU by a majority of 56% to 44% would be respected.

"It is inconceivable that a hard border should or could be imposed across the island of Ireland," he said.

"A hard border cannot be enforced in any manner, electronic or otherwise, without significant disruption to the life of this island.

"We have been clear that if any border is to emerge as a result of the referendum it must be around the island of Ireland and not across it."

Secretary of State James Brokenshire has ruled out special status within a Brexit deal as the "wrong approach".

But the policy document from the SDLP said special status must include "ensuring Northern Ireland's continued participation in European funding and programmes".

"This will entail a recasting of the north-south bodies to serve as an institutional gateway to Europe for the Northern Ireland Executive and its departments," the paper says.

The SDLP's case, which is being echoed by Sinn Fein, came as Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt argued the outworking of the Brexit vote had put the level of Northern Ireland's block grant from Westminster at enormous risk.

"We should aspire to be less dependent on the block grant," he told a gathering of business leaders in Belfast organised by the NI Chamber.

"If we are out of Europe because of English nationalists saying 'we don't want to give £9 billion a year to Brussels', what's the logic?

"They are going to look at Scotland and say: 'We are giving you over £10bn a year, and you don't want to be part of the UK, so off you go - we'll take that £10bn'.

"And then where does that leave our £10bn? That leaves us at enormous risk."

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir warned the Treasury remained unaware of the impact of Brexit here.

The Sinn Fein minister sounded alarm bells after a meeting involving the finance ministers from each of the devolved administrations with Chief Secretary to the Treasury David Gauke yesterday.

"I have previously been on record saying that there is a lack of understanding of the calamitous effects that Brexit would have on our local economy and there has been no appreciation of the need for a special status for the north within the EU," Mr O Muilleoir said.

"Nothing I have heard today changes that."

But Mr Nesbitt accused the Finance Minister of hypocrisy.

He said: "Both the Scottish and Welsh Governments have submitted substantive policy submissions to the joint ministerial committee. What has the Northern Ireland Executive produced?

"Nothing, apart from a two-page letter which is barely worth mentioning. How can the UK Government possibly know what the priorities of the Northern Ireland Executive are post-Brexit?"

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