EU negotiators ignoring Belfast Agreement, says UUP leader Swann
Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann MLA last night hit out at EU negotiators and the Irish government, accusing both of "playing fast and loose" with the Belfast Agreement.
Election & Brexit briefing Newsletter
His remarks came during a frantic day of negotiations which saw UK Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab head to Brussels for an unscheduled meeting with top EU negotiator Michel Barnier over the so-called 'Irish backstop' issue.
Unionists are opposed to EU Brexit proposals, claiming they could see Northern Ireland cut adrift from the rest of the UK, becoming what Mr Swann described as an "EU Protectorate". He said the EU's 'Irish backstop' proposals - which would mean the whole UK staying in a customs union with the EU after Brexit, and Northern Ireland also remaining in the EU's single market - was an abuse of the Belfast Agreement.
"The next few days will be pivotal in the history of Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom," he said.
"Brussels cannot simply dismiss the potential constitutional consequences of Brexit as something that they don't have to be concerned about as part of negotiations," he stated.
"That approach ignores the Belfast Agreement and the principle of consent which underpinned it. They are playing fast and loose with an agreement which underpinned the relative peace which we have today."
Any border in the Irish Sea would be as bad for the Republic of Ireland as for Northern Ireland, the UUP leader said.
"The EU negotiators, the Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney and their colleagues should be mindful of that. It certainly looks like the Belfast Agreement is being used and abused, twisted and contorted by those who are seeking to exploit the situation.
"These same people claim they don't want a hard border on the island of Ireland but seem content to see economic, regulatory barriers imposed between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom which would have a huge detrimental impact on the local economy.
"Any border down the Irish Sea, regulatory or otherwise, would be as bad as a no-deal Brexit for Northern Ireland and indeed the Republic of Ireland."
Earlier, Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill accused the DUP of being prepared to drive Northern Ireland's economy 'over the cliff' against the will of the people.
Speaking at an IRA commemoration event Mrs O'Neill said: "The majority of MLAs elected in the north are opposed to Brexit.
"This is being wilfully ignored by Theresa May and her accomplice Arlene Foster and I have no doubt that one or the other, or both, will pay a heavy price politically.
"Arlene Foster is prepared to drive our economy over the cliff in pursuit of her narrow agenda with no regard for the future prosperity of the people of the north who will pick up the tab for her reckless Brexit."
In a statement, a DUP spokesperson said: "Our position remains that we want a deal that works for all parts of the UK and which preserves its constitutional and economic integrity.
"It is the arrogance and hubris of the EU which is increasing the possibility of a 'no-deal' scenario through its desire to break up the UK."