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We must leave EU with deal, says Starmer as he urges May to rule out hard border

By Mark Bain

Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer has called on the Prime Minister to hold a Commons vote on a permanent customs union and take a 'no-deal' exit from the EU off the table once and for all.

Speaking on a visit to Belfast yesterday to meet businesses, trade unions and politicians, the Labour MP said the Prime Minister needs to realise it's not too late to step into a place of consensus as the March 29 deadline approaches.

"We need to take no-deal off the table and ensure that the commitment to no hard border in Northern Ireland is real," he said.

"Business has an increased concern about what the Prime Minister is doing, because it's extraordinary to negotiate a deal with a backstop and then vote against it as she did last Tuesday.

"The question for the Prime Minister is, 'Are you going to be blinkered and trying to force your deal through again - or are you going to reach for the majority in Parliament where there's a real consensus, which is around a customs union and single market alignment?'

"The very idea of leaving the EU without a deal causes huge anxiety, particularly in Northern Ireland, where it's a matter of peace and security in ensuring there's no hard border."

He said that from the Labour Party's point of view, "we obviously see that there are difficulties with the backstop".

"There are features there that are going to cause concern. But we recognise there is a need for it at this stage of the exercise. It's impossible to see a way forward without a backstop," he said.

Sir Keir said the Prime Minister needs to show she is serious about finding consensus in Parliament. "She needs to hold a vote on a customs union and test it. If the Prime Minister's not willing to do that, then it's an indication she is not serious about finding a consensus," he said.

"We can't be casual about no deal. People are concerned about the security threat and I hope that never materialises."

Sir Keir also accused the Prime Minister of failing to consider the impact of Brexit on the Irish border from the outset. "I don't think the Prime Minister can have thought about the border issue hard enough," he said.

"When you strip away all the technicalities, the whole point of the customs union and single market is how you avoid checks at borders - but the Prime Minister says she doesn't want a customs union and she doesn't want checks at the border either.

"She's now pursuing unrealistic changes to the Withdrawal Agreement that are simply designed to keep the Conservative Party together."

East Belfast MP Gavin Robinson said Sir Keir's comments were borne out of a struggle inside Labour, not of any deep concern for Northern Ireland.

"When he talks about a backstop being inevitable it is code for keeping the UK fully inside the single market and customs union," he said.

"Others in the Labour Party, including Jeremy Corbyn, seem to recognise that such an outcome would not reflect the referendum result. He conveniently ignores last week's vote where Parliament set a course for what it wants to see from the Government in negotiations with the EU.

"Most concerning is that he has effectively said the only alternative to the current backstop is remaining inside the customs union and single market because the European Union haven't offered anything else forward. For all Labour's criticisms of the Government's negotiations, it seems Keir Starmer is prepared to accept defeat without even entering any negotiation."

The DUP man said that the "real focus should be on meaningful negotiation with the European Union".

"They have already acknowledged that alternatives to the backstop will have to be found, but at the moment they refuse to negotiate until after March 29," he said.

Among the politicians meeting Sir Keir on his visit, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said London must stop placing the interests of the people of Northern Ireland behind parliamentary arithmetic.

"The backstop is the only mechanism to insure against a hard border and the only way to uphold the will of the people of Northern Ireland," he said.

Speaking after her meeting with the MP, Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill said: "Keir Starmer did say in the meeting that the backstop is inevitable and that is the Labour position.

"That is the message the EU27 has clearly given to the British government and it is the message Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald and I will be delivering to Prime Minister Theresa May when we meet her today."

Belfast Telegraph

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