Belfast Telegraph

Taoiseach will spell out to Northern Ireland parties his hopes for Brexit deal and Stormont return

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Mr Juncker on Wednesday
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Mr Juncker on Wednesday
Prime Minister Theresa May shakes hands with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels yesterday
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

The Taoiseach will meet the local political parties for talks today with Brexit and the stalemate at Stormont likely to feature prominently.

While Dublin has made it clear that Leo Varadkar isn't here for Brexit negotiations - which can be conducted only by the EU and the Government - local political sources say Brexit will be raised in the discussions.

The Taoiseach will meet delegations from the DUP, Sinn Fein, SDLP, Ulster Unionists and Alliance in Belfast.

He arrives after the Prime Minister yesterday vowed to deliver Brexit on time on March 29 and secured agreement for a fresh round of talks with the EU to try to get her withdrawal agreement over the line.

Mrs May described discussions with EU leaders in Brussels as "robust but constructive" and insisted she was determined to "negotiate hard" over the coming days to secure legally-binding changes to the agreement which would make it acceptable to Parliament.

She will hold talks with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker later this month. The European Parliament's Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt said the Prime Minister had assured him "there will be a backstop" in any final deal.

European Council president Donald Tusk insisted there was "no breakthrough in sight".

Mrs May took Mr Tusk to task for his comment earlier this week that a "special place in Hell" was reserved for those who promoted Brexit with no plan to deliver it. She told him that his remark was "not helpful and caused widespread dismay in the United Kingdom".

A joint statement issued after talks from Mrs May and Mr Juncker said: "Despite the challenges, the two leaders agreed that their teams should hold talks as to whether a way through can be found that would gain the broadest possible support in the UK Parliament and respect the guidelines agreed by the European Council."

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said he wasn't surprised there wasn't immediate movement in Brussels yesterday and he called on EU negotiators to be realistic.

"We want to see a deal but we need people to be in deal-making mode. We need to see genuine diplomatic language rather than the offensive rhetoric of recent days," he said.

"Both Simon Coveney and Michel Barnier have recognised there are ways to avoid a hard border even in a no-deal scenario.

"Therefore, those suggesting there are no alternatives are fooling no one but themselves."

He urged the Prime Minister to focus on seeking legally binding changes to the draft withdrawal agreement.

"She must stand by her commitments to the House of Commons," he added.

Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald claimed Mrs May's "clear priority is to appease and placate the DUP and hard-Brexiteers who are driving towards a catastrophic no-deal crash".

Ms McDonald said it was welcome that the EU had "reiterated the position that the withdrawal agreement and backstop are not up for renegotiation".

She said: "The backstop is an insurance policy. It is the bare minimum required 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. Any attempt to scrap the backstop must not be entertained.

"The British Prime Minister is aware that a crash Brexit will precipitate a referendum on Irish unity as per the Good Friday Agreement."

Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson repeated his party's opposition to the backstop and called for a "serious refocusing of minds" to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

"If the EU is serious about achieving a deal, it needs to take a pragmatic approach in its discussions with the Prime Minister which has hitherto been lacking," he said.

"The EU asked for a position from Parliament, and now they have it. Negotiations should be done away from the cameras and microphones, so it is now up to the Prime Minister and the EU to work constructively in order to reach a deal acceptable to both the UK and EU."

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said: "We need to be conscious there are now under 50 days to the scheduled Brexit point. There have already been 30 months in which to sort this out.

"So while it is positive dialogue is happening, nothing can be achieved unless the UK is prepared to be realistic.

"Businesses and other stakeholders cannot afford the clock to be run down with a cliff edge approaching. More and more decisions will have to be made which will impact on jobs and livelihoods."

The TUV said Mrs May seemed "intent on tinkering with the backstop" rather than removing it. "Such a proposal is totally unacceptable to all unionists as it would be fatal to the economic unity of the nation," a party spokesman said.

"The idea that the backstop is essential to avoid a hard border is a hoax. The core question, which remains unanswered is: 'who would build this hard border?'

"Ireland says not it. The UK says the same. It won't happen, unless the EU makes the Dublin government physically partition Ireland. How likely is that?"

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