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Foster says May's Brexit plan won't succeed as crunch time approaches

Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement to the House of Commons
Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement to the House of Commons
Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald
Arlene Foster
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Arlene Foster has said that Theresa May faces defeat in the House of Commons today because her Brexit plan is "a bad deal".

MPs will vote tonight on the Withdrawal Agreement with the DUP and Tory rebels set to join the Opposition parties to defeat the Government.

The DUP leader last night told the Belfast Telegraph: "This is a historic day for the UK. It is a critical time in politics. The DUP will be standing up for Northern Ireland. Our MPs will vote against the Withdrawal Agreement.

"The Withdrawal Agreement is set to be rejected by MPs on all sides of the House because it is a bad deal for the UK."

In a last minute effort to win the support of the DUP and hardline Tory Brexiteers, Mrs May yesterday published a joint letter from European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in which they said if the backstop were used it would be for the "shortest possible period".

However, the DUP insisted that only changes to the deal's legal text would suffice.

Mrs Foster, who is in London today, said: "With the backstop removed, the Withdrawal Agreement would attract much greater support in parliament.

"Placing a border in the Irish sea which creates a trade barrier between parts of the UK is unacceptable to unionists."

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald described the stakes as "very high" as MPs prepare to vote on the deal.

She accused "many in the British political establishment" of playing "a game of chicken with Ireland and with Irish interests", and condemned that as "a disreputable way to carry out your politics".

She branded the DUP "reckless and irresponsible" over the Withdrawal Agreement.

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann described it as a "seismic day" which would set the direction of British politics "for months, if not years, to come".

He said: "If by some chance the Prime Minister's deal were to pass the House of Commons, the backstop would undermine the economic and constitutional integrity of the UK and cast the principles of the Belfast Agreement aside."

Mr Swann said it would be reckless for Mrs May to try and engineer a scenario where the only options were a bad deal or no deal. Instead, he urged the Government to seek to extend Article 50 "to create the space for further negotiations with the EU to achieve a deal which actually respects the economic and constitutional integrity of the UK and the principles of the Belfast Agreement".

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said: "The exchange of letters changes little of substance. The backstop is not something over which any reassurances are necessary. Rather it should rightly be seen as a necessary protection and potential opportunity for Northern Ireland.

"Instead of being so defensive about it and trying to appease those who are irrational, the Prime Minister should have been making the positive case for the backstop.

"Any attempt by amendment with the support or encouragement of the Government to change or quality the backstop would nullify the Withdrawal Agreement and would be an act of bad faith."

Sinn Fein insisted the backstop could not be set aside or diluted. Speaking in Stormont after meeting with other party leaders, Ms McDonald said: "There is no such thing as a good Brexit but the backstop is the bottom line.

"Anyone who imagines that can be unpicked or diluted or set aside isn't dealing with the political realities.

"The DUP position on Brexit is reckless and irresponsible. It certainly is not in the interests of the people of the north of Ireland."

Urging the safeguarding of the backstop, she said: "The basic protections agreed for Ireland are not to be reopened or renegotiated and neither the people of Ireland or our agreements can become collateral damage in a disastrous Brexit.

"Whatever transpires at Westminster it is essential that Irish interests are protected; that the economy is protected and that the Good Friday Agreement is protected in all its parts."

Commenting on Sinn Fein's meeting with the DUP, Ms McDonald said she had a "good conversation" with Mrs Foster, but said she did not detect any shift in the party's positions.

"I think that is a very great pity, I don't believe that is a sustainable position from their point of view," she added.

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