Belfast Telegraph

EU 'barely paying lip service' to unionists, says Foster

Pressure: Prime Minister Theresa May
Pressure: Prime Minister Theresa May
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

Arlene Foster has accused the EU of "barely paying lip service" to unionists and being over-influenced by the pro-backstop lobbying of nationalists.

Writing in today's Belfast Telegraph, the DUP leader said "intransigence in Brussels and ineffectiveness in London" were preventing Brexit and it was time to implement the referendum result.

Sinn Fein accused her of pursuing a reckless Brexit agenda and of ignoring the views of unionist Remainers.

Mrs Foster met EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels yesterday as senior Tories warned pressure would increase on the Prime Minister to resign with no certainty as to when Brexit will happen.

Theresa May returned to Westminster yesterday with a new Halloween deadline for the UK to reach agreement on the terms of its departure from the EU.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn branded the latest delay a "diplomatic failure".

The UK is now on course to hold European elections next month.

Mrs Foster described her meeting with Mr Barnier as "useful" but added: "Only time will tell if he was listening."

She said she had told him that her party wanted "a sensible deal" which respected the referendum result and "the economic and constitutional integrity of the UK".

Brexiteer Tory MPs Owen Paterson and Iain Duncan Smith also attended the meeting.

Mrs Foster said: "Whilst the EU has spoken much about protecting the peace process and the Belfast Agreement, it has barely paid lip service to the views of unionists who cannot support the erection of trade barriers between Northern Ireland and our greatest market in Great Britain.

"Between intransigence in Brussels and ineffectiveness in London, we have arrived at a wholly undesirable place where we could be electing MEPs to the European Parliament within weeks but almost three years after the UK voted to leave the EU."

The DUP leader urged Mrs May to use the extra six months now available to tackle the issue of the backstop.

She claimed that if the EU refused to reopen the withdrawal agreement, the UK was "heading inexorably" towards no-deal.

Asked if she had confidence in the Prime Minister, Mrs Foster said the DUP had signed a confidence and supply agreement with the Tories and would work with whoever led the party.

Reacting to the DUP leader's Brussels trip, Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill said: "I'm sure the irony of Arlene Foster's comments won't be lost on those unionists who voted on a cross-community majority basis against Brexit.

"Those people have seen their wishes ignored by the DUP ever since as they continue to pursue a reckless Brexit agenda alongside their allies on the hard right of the Tory Party, as evidenced by Arlene Foster being accompanied by Tory MPs Iain Duncan Smith and Owen Paterson."

Ms O'Neill said the DUP continued to ignore warnings from businesses, the agricultural sector, universities and trade unionists who support the backstop.

"The DUP should drop the pretence of defending anyone's interests but their own," she added.

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said the issue of the backstop had to be addressed.

"Unionists of all shades and opinion should continue to resist attempts by the EU, the Irish Government and others who wilfully misrepresent the Belfast Agreement," he said.

"They should tell them to seek a sensible agreement which doesn't annex Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

"No matter what way it is shaped, the backstop is a direct attack on the bedrock of the Belfast Agreement, and unless a new approach is adopted, Mrs May's woes will continue."

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said the six-month extension must be used for a "fundamental rethink" of Brexit.

"The EU is rightly stressing that the withdrawal agreement, and crucially the backstop, remains the bottom line and cannot be reopened," he said.

"The only alternatives are for Parliament to work a softer version of Brexit, which would still have its own challenges and contradictions, or to finally hold a people's vote to fundamentally reconsider Brexit."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood also welcomed the six-month extension but added: "This chaos makes the return of government in Northern Ireland all the more important.

"The DUP has set its face against the will of people and businesses here for five minutes of influence at Westminster. They cannot be allowed to act as the sole voice for Northern Ireland in the six months ahead."

Meanwhile, Number 10 said last night that the Government's talks with Labour to break the Brexit deadlock wouldn't continue "for the sake of it".

Mr Corbyn warned that while his party would continue to engage "constructively" in the negotiations, the Government would have to compromise if the discussions were to succeed.

Mrs May suggested the two sides were not as far apart as was sometimes portrayed.

"I think there is actually more agreement in relation to a customs union than is often given credit for when different language is used," she said.

Earlier, Mrs May told MPs that delivering Brexit remained her priority. She acknowledged public frustration that it hadn't happened.

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