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DUP still hopeful PM will secure Brexit deal after EU meeting

Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker
Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker
Protestors outside the meeting in Luxembourg
Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel talks to Mr Johnson
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

The DUP has said there has been a "welcome step up" in efforts to reach a new Brexit deal after Boris Johnson met senior EU figures in Luxembourg.

But the SDLP questioned whether there had been any progress and rounded on London for failing to produce a credible alternative to the backstop.

The Ulster Unionists also said yesterday's meeting had given no cause for optimism.

The Prime Minister held talks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, and Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel. Mr Johnson said that while there had not been "a total breakthrough", he had been encouraged by the meetings and the EU's desire to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

But the European Commission said the Prime Minister had yet to present concrete proposals for consideration. It insisted that any new plans had to be "compatible" with Theresa May's withdrawal agreement.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said: "Behind the soundbites and the negotiating positions, it is clear that work has been ongoing to secure an agreement to allow a sensible and managed exit from the EU. The fact that discussions are to intensify and will soon be on a daily basis should be welcomed by everyone.

"The best way to build on the progress made in Northern Ireland is to secure an agreement that can be supported by unionists as well as nationalists."

Mr Dodds said the "space was available for an agreement to be found if there is the will to do so".

He added: "It should be clear to everyone in the EU that the Prime Minister is serious about securing that agreement."

SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan said: "The backstop is a guarantee that we will be protected from the damage that a hard border would inflict here. Johnson has already supported it in the House of Commons.

"The onus is on his government to produce an alternative that meet the same goals. The EU has confirmed no such alternative has been presented."

He added: "I understand that the backstop is challenging for unionism. But it is the only mechanism on the table that protects us from a no-deal.

"There has been significant speculation about compromise measures in the last few days.

"Time is running short, however, and there is a significant amount of ground left for some to cover."

UUP leader Robin Swann said Brexit discussions seem to "run at the same pace as the talks to restore devolution at Stormont - and that's not saying much".

He said: "There should be more genuine, intensive engagement under way about a replacement for the backstop as the clock counts down towards October 31.

"Otherwise the inevitable outcome could be a repackaged backstop under another name which would rip apart the Belfast Agreement. It would loosen the bonds which tie the UK together and this is totally unacceptable to any unionist."

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said: "Boris Johnson's approach to Brexit is increasingly being exposed as bluff and bluster.

"It is not tenable to say you have a plan but you are not going to show it until the last minute of negotiations. Given the time constraints the UK is under, games of brinkmanship are counter-productive.

"The failings of the UK's diplomacy are plain to see in today's comments by the Prime Minister of Luxembourg."

Mr Bettel said EU citizens were facing mounting uncertainty due to Brexit while standing next to an empty podium after Mr Johnson pulled out of a joint appearance. It was cancelled amid the noise of pro-EU demonstrators.

Mr Johnson decided to only give a statement to a small group of journalists assembled at the nearby residence of the British ambassador. The Prime Minister said: "We've got to manage this carefully. Yes, we've got a good chance of a deal. Yes, I can see the shape of it. Everybody could see roughly what could be done.

"But it will require movement. And it will require the system in which the EU can control the UK after we leave - the so-called backstop - to go from that treaty."

A European Commission statement said it was the UK's responsibility to propose "legally operational solutions that are compatible with the withdrawal agreement".

It added that "such proposals have not yet been made".

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