Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland politicians still divided on Brexit plans as Tories face major crisis

By David Young

On a day when turmoil engulfed the Conservative party as Brexit minister David Davis and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson resigned over the Prime Minister's Brexit plans, political reaction in Northern Ireland to the crisis remained polarised.

Mr Johnson plunged the government into crisis after he announced he was quitting with a scathing denunciation of Theresa May's Brexit plans, saying they would leave the UK a "colony" of the European Union.

In a scathing resignation letter to the Prime Minister, he said that under her leadership, the UK was "heading for a semi-Brexit", with the dream of an outward-looking global Britain "dying, suffocated by needless self-doubt".

His dramatic departure was the second resignation of a Cabinet "big beast" in less than 24 hours, after Brexit Secretary Mr Davis walked out late on Sunday.

Staunch Brexiteer Dominic Raab was named as Mr Davis's replacement as Secretary of State for Leaving the EU. Mrs May moved quickly to shore up her position, moving Jeremy Hunt to the Foreign Office from the Department of Health after having secured a £20 billion-a-year funding increase for the NHS.

The DUP - whose MPs are crucial to the survival of Mrs May's government - continued to offer its support to the Prime Minister as she faced a mounting backlash within her own party over her Chequers Brexit plan.

North Belfast MP Nigel Dodds (above), the party's Westminster leader, said: "The DUP wants to see a sensible Brexit that delivers the will of the people as expressed in the referendum and which strengthens the Union which matters; the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

"We want a strengthened United Kingdom with control of our laws, our borders and our money.

"We welcome the Prime Minister's commitment to ensuring that the Brexit deal in no way weakens the United Kingdom, but it is also vitally important that the EU's interpretation of the backstop is rejected and to ensure there is no border down the Irish Sea."

But speaking in Belfast after meeting business leaders here, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald said that Ireland "should not become collateral damage amid a Tory civil war over Brexit".

"Our sole priority is the protection of Irish interests north and south," Ms McDonald said.

"The civil war within the Tory party is a matter for the Tories, and let no-one imagine that Ireland will be the collateral damage for the Tory Brexit or for that matter that we will pick up the tab for the Tory civil war."

Ms McDonald also warned that the UK should not "persist with a strategy that is about brinkmanship".

"Mrs May seems still to be at sixes and sevens and is causing confusion in terms of what her and her government's position is," she said.

"They say they are leaving the customs union and the single market, we know that the stated objectives of protecting the Good Friday Agreement, avoiding a hardening of the border, protecting citizens' rights, demands that specific arrangements are agreed for the north of Ireland."

Brexit minister Steve Baker also left the government, while Chris Green quit his position as an unpaid parliamentary aide at the Department for Transport.

Alliance's Brexit spokesperson Dr Stephen Farry said Mrs May's government was now "a complete shambles".

He said the Prime Minister had also chosen to reinforce mutually incompatible red lines on the issue, putting in danger any withdrawal agreement and transition deal.

"This government is now a complete shambles, with major resignations and the Prime Minister trying to sell a Brexit plan that is incoherent, bureaucratic and economically damaging, with no chance of it being accepted.

"With no viable plan and in chaos, the UK is ever closer to the cliff-edge of a no deal outcome on Brexit with all of the catastrophic economic and security implications."

He added: "The stark reality is much of the Chequers plan and forthcoming white paper is about the future relationship. The immediate challenge is to sign up to the backstop. There can be no withdrawal agreement or transition deal around this."

Pro-Brexit Ballymena businessman Irwin Armstrong said that Mrs May's difficulties were the outworking of basic mistakes that had been made early in the Brexit negotiations.

"No-one - not even Theresa May - knows what's going to happen out of this," he said.

"Her position is now precarious. A third of the party doesn't support her.

"And if there is a leadership contest in the Conservative party, the convention is that if she doesn't win by at least 15% she will be so undermined that she will have to step down," the Conservative member added.

In Dublin, a spokesman for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that the resignation of two British Cabinet ministers are matters for the Prime Minister.

While the Irish government welcomed Friday's agreement, it said "a lot of work" remains, "particularly from the British side".

"We welcome the fact that the British Cabinet agreed collectively on detailed proposals for the future relationship between the European Union (EU) and Britain on Friday," it said.

"And we look forward to seeing greater detail in the UK's white paper later this week.

"There's still a lot of work to do, particularly from the British side. Time is running out.

"The commitments the UK has already signed up to must be translated into the Withdrawal Agreement and we need to intensify efforts on all outstanding issues, especially the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland."

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has yet to comment on Mrs May's plan, but European Council President Donald Tusk took to Twitter to express his hope that Brexit would leave - along with Mr Johnson and Mr Davis.

"Politicians come and go but the problems they have created for people remain. I can only regret that the idea of #Brexit has not left with Davis and Johnson. But.. who knows?" Mr Tusk said.

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