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Foster tries to calm fears Brexit may split UK

Exclusive: First Minister insists Northern Ireland will be at forefront of talks

By Rebecca Black

Published 09/09/2016

Ballymena Chamber of Commerce president Ronan McCann and Mid and East Antrim Borough Council Mayor Audrey Wales with First Minister Arlene Foster during a visit yesterday
Ballymena Chamber of Commerce president Ronan McCann and Mid and East Antrim Borough Council Mayor Audrey Wales with First Minister Arlene Foster during a visit yesterday

First Minister Arlene Foster has dismissed concerns that withdrawal from the European Union could lead to the break-up of the UK and insisted that Northern Ireland's voice would be heard in the negotiations.

The pledge from the DUP leader comes as Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones is today due to warn that the UK could split unless all home nations play a role in talks. He will say that the negotiations will fail if they end up being a two-way dialogue between Brussels and London.

The news came as a survey suggested that the EU referendum had not changed the vast majority of people's minds over whether or not there should be a border poll.

The research for the BBC's The View also found Brexit had very little influence on how people would vote in a referendum on a united Ireland.

Meanwhile, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon also expressed concern about her country's voice being heard, claiming there was a "cloud of secrecy" around the Government's Brexit negotiations plan and calling for greater transparency.

But this week Prime Minister Theresa May vowed that she would not be giving a "running commentary" on her plans concerning the EU.

In June the UK voted to leave the bloc in a referendum, with 51.9% supporting leave and 48.1% voting remain.

Mrs Foster also told the Belfast Telegraph of her determination that the UK does leave the group in accordance with the wishes of the people.

She said although negotiations between London and the devolved regions have not yet commenced, she was confident they will be a "two-way conversation".

Mrs Foster said that since the result of the referendum, she has been clear that she is determined Northern Ireland's voice is heard in the negotiations.

"It was a point I raised with David Davis when he visited Northern Ireland only last week in what was a very positive engagement," she said.

"The UK devolved regions must be involved, but it is also important that we all come with a positive approach and work to secure the best possible outcome for our individual regions and for the United Kingdom as a whole.

"We must respect the Government and the authority that lies at Westminster.

"I am confident there will be a two-way conversation between London and each of the devolved administrations.

"The negotiations have not yet commenced and they will not be carried out via the media. Those of us who want to see a successful and strong United Kingdom must work to achieve that outcome.

"We must also recognise that a majority of people across the UK voted to leave the European Union and deliver upon that mandate."

Mr Jones, who is on a trade mission in the US, will speak about Britain's vote to leave the EU in a speech to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs later.

He is expected to say: "Wales and the other devolved nations must play a full and active role in the negotiations to leave the EU to ensure our interests are fully protected.

"Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast must also have seats at the table. Whatever deal is finally negotiated, its acceptance should be subject to the support of the four Parliaments that now legislate for the UK.

"There can be no return to the old constitutional status quo, where the United Kingdom was one of the most centralised states in the developed world.

"We have to embrace the new reality with fresh constitutional thinking if our British Union is to survive the new tensions created by EU exit.

"Unless we take this seriously, nothing - up to and including the break-up of the UK into its component parts - would be inconceivable."

However Mike Nesbitt, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, accused Mr Jones of causing unnecessary fear about the dissolving of the UK.

"We are focused on the opportunities for the people of Northern Ireland, not on scaremongering," he said.

"Where Carwyn Jones is right is in identifying the important role that the devolved administrations must play in negotiations, because the Government's priorities may not be Northern Ireland's.

"For example, a trade deal with Argentina for beef imports might not be in the interests of our beef farmers.

"It is imperative that the Executive gets its act together and presents a united front with clear demands as the Government leads on the negotiations not just to withdraw from the EU, but also to establish new relationships with Europe, the World Trade Organisation and other non-EU nations."

"The Executive's inability to offer a joint meeting with the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, was a disastrous start," Mr Nesbitt added.

Meanwhile Sinn Fein's spokesman on Brexit, John O'Dowd, is in Philadelphia this week lobbying for American support for the remain vote.

"The British Government's secretary of state for the North James Brokenshire is also currently in the US and no doubt he will be hearing the same message that I am hearing - that the remain vote of the people of the North must be respected," he said.

"He and his Government need to listen to that loud and clear voice from those in America who have been engaged in the Irish peace process from the beginning and realise that remain must mean remain," Mr O'Dowd added.

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