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No sting in backstop pledges Coveney as Foster hosts 'frank' Stormont talks

By Suzanne Breen

The DUP told Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney that there was no need for the backstop at what was described as a "useful but frank" meeting at Stormont yesterday.

The Tanaiste acknowledged that some unionists had genuine concerns about the controversial backstop. He said EU leaders were prepared to offer clarification and reassurances in order to get Theresa May's deal over the line, but he stressed that the deal could not be renegotiated.

Mr Coveney held meetings with several business and civic groups and political parties in Belfast yesterday.

There had been some confusion over whether his schedule would include a meeting with the DUP after he claimed the party had declined an offer to hold talks.

But Arlene Foster said she was happy to meet him at Parliament Buildings. The DUP delegation included deputy leader Nigel Dodds, East Londonderry MP Gregory Campbell and MLAs William Humphrey and Christopher Stalford.

Speaking afterwards, Mr Campbell described the meeting as "useful and at times frank" and said Dublin were left in no doubt about the DUP's views on the Prime Minister's deal.

Mrs Foster said: "We want to see a sensible exit from the EU which works for the Republic of Ireland as well as Northern Ireland.

"The Withdrawal Agreement is not a fair deal and we cannot support it.

"It should be no more acceptable to build a new east-west border than it is to build a new north-south border.

"The backstop is not needed. No one is going to build a hard border. We will work with the Government to reach a better deal for the UK but this will require more pragmatism from the EU."

Mrs Foster insisted that her party had held "useful discussions" with Mr Coveney and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in the past and wanted constructive dialogue with them. "Despite our political differences, it is important to continue the conversation and help the Irish Government to have a better understanding of unionism," she said.

The DUP leader stressed that exiting the EU without a deal was not her party's favoured outcome.

"To reach a better deal will require a change of heart in Dublin and Brussels. I trust the Irish Government will reflect on our principled objections to the Withdrawal Agreement and recognise that there is a better way which can work for both the Republic of Ireland and the UK," she added.

Mr Coveney said that a crash Brexit was not inevitable and he did not believe Mrs May faced inevitable defeat in the House of Commons on Tuesday.

While the Republic would not interfere in the parliamentary process at Westminster, it did want to offer assurances that the backstop wasn't what some Brexiteers were "spinning", he stated.

On next week's House of Commons vote, the Tanaiste said: "One of the things that I can say confidentially is there is not a majority of people in Westminster who want to see a no-deal Brexit, in fact there is a majority who want to prevent that from happening.

"What we haven't seen yet is a majority to support a mechanism that can actually achieve that and, in my view, the only person who actually has a deal that is in place and in writing, that can actually achieve that in a way that solves so many of the complex problems linked to Brexit, is the Prime Minister herself."

On backstop concerns, he said: "We are happy to look at ways in which we can provide clarification and reassurance and definition in terms of what is meant by that backstop, its temporary nature, and the fact it is only a fall-back insurance mechanism in the first place anyway, that we hope to never use.

"I mean, are we really suggesting that this whole deal is going to be pulled down because of something that may never be used in the first place and even if it is, will only be used on a temporary basis?"

The Tanaiste denied the backstop was really about bringing a united Ireland closer.

"This isn't a threat to anybody, the Irish Government certainly doesn't have any ulterior motives here, apart from to try to protect the status quo on this island, the peace process, the fact we have a border but it's a border that's largely invisible when it comes to trade and movement of goods," he said.

"I don't believe there is a sting in the backstop at all."

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