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SF and SDLP will fight tooth and nail to stay in EU

Nationalists and republicans clash with the Secretary of State over the implications of vote for Northern Ireland as Brussels talks tough over the UK's access to single market

By Noel McAdam

Nationalists have poured scorn on Secretary of State Theresa Villiers' insistence that Northern Ireland cannot have special status within the EU.

A week after the UK public voted to quit the bloc - a decision that 56% of the electorate here opposed - both Sinn Fein and the SDLP warned they would fight tooth and nail to keep Northern Ireland connected to the EU.

Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said: "There is an awful lot of discontent and anger in our community... at any attempt by Theresa Villiers and others to drag us out of Europe.

"This is not a done deal. There is still a lot to be played for, and we will be asserting the rights of those people who voted to remain in Europe.

"London is in turmoil and nobody knows what the outcome of what all of this is going to be."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood indicated that his party intended to explore every avenue to prevent a Brexit and pointed out that the mechanism to kickstart the UK's departure - called Article 50 - was yet to be triggered.

"That is very significant - it means nothing is set in stone," he said.

But Mrs Villiers stressed: "EU rules are very clear. Membership is at member-state level. It's a national question - it's not possible within EU rules to have a part of a country being part of the European Union.

"This decision has been made - the people of the United Kingdom have voted to leave the European Union. That decision is going to be respected. That is what the Government will now take forward."

Mrs Villiers, who personally campaigned for a Brexit, also emphasised that more decisions affecting Northern Ireland would be taken in Northern Ireland in the wake of the result.

She hinted that the Stormont Executive could be granted control over payments to farmers, depending on the negotiations over the UK's departure.

"There's cross-party agreement that farm subsidies are essential and must continue," Mrs Villiers said.

"One would expect, given the way the current devolution settlement works, that Stormont would be in the driving seat in terms of allocating those farm subsidies. But these are things that must await the conclusion of the negotiations."

As a round of top-level talks over the implications of Brexit began at Stormont yesterday, she also pledged to "engage" with farmers and business leaders in the weeks ahead.

While First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness clashed over the issue, there were reports the first Executive meeting since last week's referendum had made some progress.

Finance Minister Mairtin O Muilleoir described the 45-minute meeting as "good" and hinted that those present had charted a way forward.

"Despite our Leave/Remain differences, we made progress on post-ref steps," he tweeted.

Mrs Villiers also ruled out any reduction in the cost of the devolution of corporation tax to the Stormont Executive.

First Minister Arlene Foster and others had speculated the Brexit vote might mean the cut to the province's Block Grant, as a result of gaining corporation tax powers, could be reduced.

The DUP leader had argued the so-called Azores ruling, which required the Block Grant reduction, was less relevant with the UK deciding to pull out of the bloc.

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