Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland's political parties meet with Leo Varadkar in Belfast

Northern Ireland's five main political parties have met with Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Belfast to put forward their views on the current state of the Brexit negotiations.

The meetings come as Prime Minister Theresa May prepares for further talks with the EU in a bid to secure changes to her withdrawal agreement, which was heavily defeated in the Commons last month.

Since then, MPs have passed an amendment rejecting a no-deal Brexit, and another calling for the controversial backstop to be replaced with "alternative arrangements".

The EU, however, has said the issue is not up for renegotiation - although changes to the wording of the Political Declaration, which sets out the plans for the future relationship between the UK and the EU, may be possible.

Speaking following Friday's meeting, DUP leader Arlene Foster said if there is "genuine political will" a deal is possible.

"Northern Ireland should stand as a reminder to the Taoiseach of how we have overcome many greater obstacles in the past," she added.

"It was important for the Taoiseach to understand that the views of unionists cannot be ignored. The EU must respect that, for unionists, a new border east-west is no more acceptable than a new border north-south.

"The draft withdrawal agreement was unacceptable because it would cut Northern Ireland off from the rest of the United Kingdom and create a democratic deficit in Belfast." 

Ulster Unionist MLA Steve Aiken said there needs to be more "level-headed" conversations between the various parties moving forward.

"What we said to the Taoiseach fairly clearly is we need to de-dramatise the conservation that's going on and Ireland needs to consider very carefully what it's going to do to make sure we are actually going to get a deal that comes across," he said.

Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O'Neill urged Mr Varadkar to remain committed to the backstop and said, in the event of a no-deal Brexit, a border poll should be called.

"The backstop is our only insurance policy to prevent a hard British border in Ireland. It is supported by the majority of citizens, businesses and other key sectors of our society and people," she said.

"Any retreat from it would jeopardise Irish interests, the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. With the exception of the unionist parties, there is political unanimity north and south on the need to protect the backstop.

"Of course, the actions of the British government in seeking to ditch the backstop are not only an act of bad faith, they have also made the prospects of a catastrophic no deal crash much more likely."

"We reiterated today that in the event of a no deal, the government should immediately begin preparing for a unity referendum."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he felt reassured that the Irish government and the EU are "standing with the people of Northern Ireland".

He added: "(We are) reassured that the Taoiseach and the European Union will continue to stand against any moving backwards in our peace process and political progress, and I hope for once and for all that in the heart of Westminster, that the Prime Minister and the leadership of the Labour Party finally understand that we need to protect our citizens here and show some real political maturity and leadership."

Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said that UK has two options to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland, one of which is having regulatory alignment with the EU on a UK-wide basis.

"If they don't want to do that, then they have got to get a special deal for Northern Ireland that allows us to have regulatory alignment north and south and prevents a hard border on the island," she added.

"Everything else is simply off the table at this stage. And it's really important with such a little amount of time left in these negotiations that people focus on what is real and what is achievable."

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