Belfast Telegraph

Donaldson insists Brexit talks with Taoiseach will be 'robust and frank'

By Suzanne Breen and Niall O'Connor

The DUP will have a "robust and frank exchange" on Brexit with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar when the party meets him during his first official visit to Northern Ireland today.

Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson said his party would tell Mr Varadkar that there was "a need for dialogue not megaphone diplomacy" on the issue.

Irish government insiders said the Taoiseach would move to end the hostility between his government and the DUP as he urged all parties in Northern Ireland to lay aside their differences and restore power-sharing at Stormont.

After a keynote speech at Queen's University, Belfast, the Taoiseach will meet the local parties separately. Dublin sources said he was "unlikely" to raise the issue of equal marriage with Arlene Foster.

Mr Varadkar will attend a breakfast Pride event in Belfast tomorrow. In his Queen's address, he will warn that "every single aspect of life" is at stake in the Brexit talks.

He will refer to the "differences and diversity" of the people north and south, which he says makes the island strong as a whole. "Our differences make us stronger and our diversity is our strength," Mr Varadkar is expected to say.

"We need to hear the voice of the elected representatives here in the North. We need the Executive, the Assembly, the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council up and running and acting in the interests of our peoples.

"We need that more than ever, and we need it now." The Taoiseach will describe Brexit as the greatest challenge of this generation. Negotiations are well under way in Brussels, and he is expected to quote Michel Barnier, who said "the clock is ticking".

"Every single aspect of life in Northern Ireland could be affected by the outcome - jobs and the economy, the border, citizens rights, cross-border workers, travel, trade, agriculture, energy, fisheries, aviation, EU funding, tourism, public services, the list goes on."

The diplomatic tone set to be used by the Taoiseach contrasts with some of his recent remarks on the DUP's approach to Brexit.

He infuriated the party when he said he was "hopeful" that Brexit wouldn't take place and that Ireland wouldn't "design a border for the Brexiteers". The DUP said that Brexit would be a reality and the will of the British people shouldn't be disrespected.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said: "We welcome the opportunity to meet with the Taoiseach and talk directly about Brexit and co-operating more closely to deliver an outcome that benefits both jurisdictions.

"However, it will also be a robust and frank exchange, as we believe the Taoiseach needs to gain a better understanding of where the DUP is coming from on these issues and of the need for dialogue rather than megaphone diplomacy."

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams welcomed the Taoiseach's strong stance on Brexit and accused the DUP of "disrespecting the will of the people in the North who voted to remain".

He said: "Brexit is the greatest threat to the two economies of this island since partition. The Irish government has a responsibility to defend the Remain vote and to challenge any proposals that threaten a hard economic border on the island of Ireland.

"Sinn Fein believes that the best way to defend the Good Friday Agreement, and to ensure that our economies are protected during Brexit, is for the North to be designated special status within the EU."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said Mr Varadkar had adopted the right stance on Brexit. "I will encourage the Taoiseach to stick rigidly by his position that there can be no new economic or physical border imposed on the island of Ireland," he said.

"The Irish government should not and cannot move from this position. We are equal members of the EU27, but Ireland is more equal than the others on the issue of Brexit - we stand to lose most."

Alliance leader Naomi Long said she looked forward to meeting the Taoiseach and welcomed his participation in Belfast Pride celebrations which "showcases the diversity of our city".

Mrs Long said: "These are critical times politically for these islands, in terms of Brexit and the future of devolution. Northern Ireland and the Republic have a good relationship and I am confident it will continue thanks to meetings such as these."

The Ulster Unionists said it wouldn't be possible for them to meet the Taosieach today because of "logistics" but hoped to do so soon.

Former MP Tom Elliott called on Mr Varadkar to press for the release of files held by the Irish Directorate of Military Intelligence, which may shed light on IRA attacks such as Kingsmill.

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