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Lords reveal fears of Brexit impact on Northern Ireland

By Noel McAdam

Political stability in Northern Ireland cannot be allowed to become the "collateral damage" of Brexit, a major new report warns.

A House of Lords committee also blamed Brexit for worsening divisions between the Protestant and Catholic communities.

The fallout from the vote to quit the EU contributed to the collapse of the Executive and this year's Assembly election in March that left Sinn Fein within one seat of the DUP at Stormont, the peers said.

The EU committee of the upper House further called on the Government to "raise its game" in consulting the devolved administrations and give them "real influence" - even though devolution has been suspended in Northern Ireland since January.

It warned that given the deal between the DUP and Conservatives to prop up Theresa May, the Government should seek to maintain confidence among nationalists.

Last year's referendum exacerbated divisions in the two-party Executive with the DUP campaigning to leave and Sinn Fein focused on remaining - divisions which sharpened after the UK-wide poll resulted in a Brexit verdict.

Sinn Fein called for a border poll on Irish unity and special designated status for Northern Ireland within the European Union, while the DUP stressed the province must leave on the same terms as the rest of the UK.

"These tensions may have contributed to the breakdown of relations that led to the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive in January," the report said. The committee visited Edinburgh and Cardiff to take evidence from the devolved administrations there - but did not come to Belfast because the Executive had collapsed.

The report warned that the appointment of new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the fact that no nationalist MPs sit at Westminster due to Sinn Fein's policy of abstentionism and the SDLP's loss of its three representatives in the general election "created new uncertainty, underlining the fragility of the political settlement in Northern Ireland".

It stated that the 1998 Good Friday deal "established a delicate equilibrium" and it is "imperative that Brexit does not weaken this equilibrium or the commitment and confidence of both unionist and nationalist communities in the political process".

While the agreement between the Conservative Government and the DUP provides an opportunity for Northern Ireland's interests to gain attention and prominence, the Government must also take account of the interests of the nationalist community in order to maintain its confidence, it added.

"Political stability in Northern Ireland must not be allowed to become 'collateral damage' of Brexit."

It recommended a Joint Ministerial Committee from the regions which could meet monthly as negotiations towards a spring 2019 departure from the European Union go on - but Northern Ireland would not be represented because it has no Executive at Stormont.

"Obviously we all would like to see this problem resolved," Liberal Democrat committee member Baroness Suttie said yesterday.

"I think the report shows how absolutely key it is that we get an Assembly and Executive back in place."

The report was agreed before the publication of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill last week in the House of Commons.

It sparked a joint response from the Scottish and Welsh administrations that they could seek to withhold legislative consent for the deal.

The Lords report, however, concluded that a durable outcome to the two years of Brexit talks will need the consent of all the nations of the UK, and of their elected representatives.

Lord Jay of Ewelme, a member of the Lords EU Committee and former head of the Diplomatic Service, said: "The UK Government must respect the devolved institutions.

"It's not enough saying it's listening to them - it's actually got to take account of what they say and adjust its approach to accommodate their specific needs."

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