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Brexit negotiator Verhofstadt's shock at Belfast peace walls - Northern Ireland's 'frozen conflict'

MEPs vote against progressing Brexit talks

By Jonathan Bell

Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt said Northern Ireland was stuck in a "frozen conflict" and he was shocked at the sight of Belfast's "peace walls".

He was addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg during a debate on a motion on if "sufficient progress" has been made on Brexit talks in order to advance them to discussions on a future trade deal.

A majority of MEPs, 557, voted that there had not been enough progress on the important matters of the Irish border, financial settlements and citizens' rights before talks could be advanced saying there needed to be a "major breakthrough".

Guy Verhofstadt, who is the European Parliament's Brexit negotiator, spoke of his recent visit to Northern Ireland for the first time. He said it struck him that the problems were not over and despite the peace, tensions still remained.

Stressing the importance of the Good Friday Agreement, he said if a border returned, so too would violence.

MEPs heard how he was "shocked" during the visit at seeing the so-called peace walls dividing communities, describing it as having a "frozen conflict".

"There are fences 12 metres high and this is in the 21st Century," he said.

He said any solutions will have to respect the integrity surrounding the legal order of the EU and the Good Friday Agreement. He argued that peace should not be damaged by Brexit and the Good Friday agreement should be attached to the final article 50 deal.

He noted that the Common Travel Area will require detailed work, which he said both the EU and the UK were committed to.

DUP MEP Diane Dodds said Northern Ireland could not be a "bargaining chip" in the Brexit talks.

"It is not ‘flexible or imaginative’ to claim that a trade solution can only be found if Northern Ireland remains within the single market or customs union. Northern Ireland’s brexit solution will be part of the United Kingdom’s solution."

UUP MEP Jim Mr Nicholson accused Mr Verhofstadt of taking sides by calling for an international border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

He said Brexit could not be used as an excuse to break up the UK.

"We joined as one country and will leave as one United Kingdom", he told MEPs.

Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson suggested support was growing for Northern Ireland to have special status within the EU.

 "It also means being in the single market and the customs union," she said.

The parliament also heard how divisions between Theresa May's own Cabinet ministers were hampering talks. One senior MEP urged the Prime Minister to sack Boris Johnson.

European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker welcomed the "conciliatory" tone of Theresa May's Florence speech in which she said no EU member state would lose out financially as as result of Britain's decision to leave.

Mr Juncker said the negotiations had made "good progress" on the issue of citizens' rights but the "indispensable" role of the European Court of Justice in enforcing them had yet to be agreed.

A fifth round of negotiations is expected to begin on October 9 but it's thought highly unlikely they'll resume before the council summit on October 18.

Juncker welcomed Mrs May's recognition that the UK had to honour its financial obligations but added: "The devil will, as always, be in the detail.

"The taxpayers of the EU27 should not pay for the British decision."

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