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Northern Ireland's pro-Remain parties unite to urge flesh be put on the bones of Brexit 'guarantees'

By Gillian Halliday

Leaders of Northern Ireland's pro-Remain parties have joined forces to call for more progress on a range of "unresolved" Brexit issues.

The joint statement by Sinn Fein, SDLP, Alliance and Greens comes as the Prime Minister arrives in Northern Ireland today to begin a two-day visit.

Theresa May will meet with the leaders of the five main parties here before delivering a keynote address on Brexit in Belfast tomorrow.

The pro-Remain parties said they were reinforcing their position as negotiations on withdrawal from Europe reached a "crucial point".

Michelle O'Neill, Colum Eastwood, Naomi Long and Steven Agnew had all supported the 'backstop' option keeping the UK aligned with the EU's customs union after Brexit, insisting it would "safeguard stability" in a joint statement back in May.

However, amendments to the Government's Customs Bill in votes at Westminster this week prompted speculation that the UK was a step closer to a 'no deal' Brexit and a hard border in Ireland.

One key vote meant the EU's proposal to allow Northern Ireland to remain in the customs union in the event of no deal was effectively killed off.

And despite assurances from Mrs May that a hard border has been ruled out - a message she is expected to underline today - the pro-Remain parties insist they need this reflected in legislation going forward.

"Guarantees were given in the Joint Report between the British Government and the EU in December that there would be no diminution of rights as a result of Brexit, on the rights of people resident here and that the Good Friday Agreement would be protected," the leaders said in their joint statement.

"These guarantees have yet to be fully translated into legally binding text and reflected in the Draft Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland."

The leaders also said there is "little sign of any tangible progress" on a range of issues, including provision for cross-border health services, such as the Northwest Cancer Centre and the Children's Heart Centre, or safeguards for EEA migrant workers in Northern Ireland.

They added they also wanted clarity on various other issues, such as whether access to the European Health Insurance Card will be maintained after the UK formally exits the European Union.

Noting amendment proposals put forward by civic society groups to the Draft Protocol, they added: "We urge further dialogue and consideration to ensure (it) is amended in a manner that faithfully reflects commitments made in the first phase of the negotiations".

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