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Brexit: May vows Northern Ireland will not be separated from rest of UK

By Eamon Sweeney

Nothing in the agreement with the EU "is going to lead to a separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom", the Prime Minister has told MPs.

She was speaking after a row that erupted between London and Dublin over the legal standing of Friday's deal appeared to have been resolved.

DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds yesterday thanked Theresa May for her "personal devotion" after working to get an initial text that was rejected by his party "strengthened in relation to the constitutional and economic integrity of the whole United Kingdom".

The North Belfast MP told the Commons: "The Prime Minister said at her Friday Press conference that the deal arrived and represented a significant improvement from Monday and we in these benches agree wholeheartedly with that.

"Would she confirm that the text of this agreement now makes clear that in the event of a deal... Northern Ireland will not be separated politically, economically or by any regulatory requirements from the rest of the UK, along with the aim of no harder border on the island of Ireland, but in the event of no deal - no overall deal - nothing is agreed?"

Mrs May replied: "I'm grateful for the contributions that were made, as I said in my statement, by the DUP and others who were concerned about the Union of the UK - and the joint progress report was strengthened to make absolutely clear, as he says, that of course under the Belfast Agreement we recognise the principle of consent but we are very clear that nothing in that agreement is going to lead to a separation of Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK."

Mrs May said the deal will not affect the Belfast Agreement.

Earlier, Brexit Secretary David Davis backtracked on his claim that the Brexit deal on the border isn't binding, claiming his views were taken out of context.

He had claimed the divorce deal was simply a statement of intent rather than something legally enforceable, suggesting the agreement could be reneged upon. But Mr Davis moved to clarify his remarks yesterday.

"Of course it's legally enforceable, under the withdrawal agreement, but even if that didn't for some reason, if something went wrong, we would still be seeking to provide a frictionless, invisible border," he told LBC Radio.

The European Commission also suggested last week's deal had no legal basis, describing it as a "gentleman's agreement" between Mr Davis and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier.

"Formally speaking, the joint report is not legally binding," the commission's chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas stated.

"But we see the joint report of Michel Barnier and David Davis as a deal between gentlemen and it is the clear understanding that it is fully backed and endorsed by the UK Government," he added.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar welcomed Mr Davis's latest comments.

The Irish Government is of the view that the deal struck late last week will form part of the withdrawal agreement, which will be legally binding.

"I'm delighted to hear he has clarified his remarks this morning. I'm very happy with the clarification," Mr Varadkar said.

Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson said it was clear that "some form of wording had to be agreed by the UK and the EU27 in order to move to talking about our future trading relationship".

"It has always been the case that solving the problems around the border between the United Kingdom and the European Union would involve agreeing a deep and comprehensive trade deal, and establishing a new customs relationship in phase two.

"In the meantime it is vital that the Government continues to stand by its commitment that Northern Ireland will not lose its place in the UK single market, and that the constitutional integrity of the UK is protected throughout these negotiations."

However, Sinn Fein's Brexit spokesman said that "backslapping and spin" should not take precedence over "caution and vigilance" in the next phase of the talks.

David Cullinane TD said: "The heavy lifting on the Brexit negotiations is still to come.

"It is too early to celebrate a win while the ball is still in play. It is important to remember that at this point we have no deal.

"Friday's report is simply where the negotiations stand at the moment. It is not a cast iron guarantee as stated by the Taoiseach, but simply a set of measures that both sides have agreed at this stage in the talks in order to move the process forward."

SDLP MLA Claire Hanna said Northern Ireland had "remained voiceless on Brexit for far too long".

"In that vacuum, the narrow party political interests of the DUP have been allowed to become a dominant narrative. Their insular agenda will hurt local business and the potential for trade with the world. As we approach phase two of the Brexit negotiations, that must be remedied," she said.

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