Belfast Telegraph

Unionists attack Brexit chief's hint of special status for Northern Ireland

By Suzanne Breen

DUP leader Arlene Foster has told the European Parliament's Brexit co-ordinator that special status must not be granted to allow Northern Ireland to remain in the EU.

Guy Verhofstadt met the five main political parties in Belfast yesterday before travelling to the Republic.

He said the solution to the Irish border problem could involve Northern Ireland remaining in the customs union and single market, even if Britain left.

While nationalist parties support this option, unionist politicians yesterday insisted it was a non-runner.

Mrs Foster said: "The DUP position is clear. We want to secure an outcome that keeps the border open and seamless for businesses involved in cross-border trade.

"However, this solution must be a part of a UK-wide solution. We will not countenance any customs deals that cuts Northern Ireland adrift from our primary marketplace.

"Whether it be in terms of transition or future trade relations with those in the single market, Northern Ireland must be treated in the same fashion as the rest of the UK."

UUP leader Robin Swann said "special status is not an option".

"Northern Ireland can't remain part of the single market or customs union if the rest of the UK is outside it," he said.

"To suggest otherwise will pull apart the Belfast Agreement and undermine the foundations of the relative peace we have today."

Mr Swann suggested that the Republic should apply for special status with the EU "to recognise its unique position in having a land border with the UK".

Sinn Fein's Northern Ireland leader Michelle O'Neill told Mr Verhofstadt that the granting of special status was the only way forward.

"Guy Verhofstadt is very aware of Sinn Fein's concerns about the impact Brexit will have on the island of Ireland," she said.

"We simply cannot withstand any exclusion from the single market and customs union, allow the return of borders of the past, or deny citizens access to the European Courts of Justice.

"There is an urgent need for new thinking and that isn't likely to come from the Tories, who are clearly in disarray and simply see Ireland as collateral damage in their reckless Brexit agenda."

Mrs O'Neill said she found Mr Verhofstadt very understanding.

"At least he's had the manners to come and talk to people about the implications, which is far more than any British minister has done," she added.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the European Parliament's Brexit co-ordinator agreed it was "complete madness" that the "economic and political tsunami" of Brexit was hurtling towards Northern Ireland and an Executive wasn't in place.

"The biggest show in town, the biggest issue on this continent is Brexit. We need a strong voice to fight it," he said.

"If we want to protect our interests, stop a hard border, and shelter the people on this island from Brexit, we need the institutions back up and running. Anything less would be a historic unforgivable abdication of responsibility."

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said he made the case to Mr Verhofstadt for Northern Ireland remaining within the single market.

"This would strongly be in our economic interest. It would entail the Assembly ensuring full compliance with EU law and abiding by the four fundamental freedoms," he added.

TUV leader Jim Allister accused the EU of massive hypocrisy over the border.

"If there is a customs border, it will be solely at EU insistence. It is time to call out the EU on its whining and grandstanding over an Irish border - it is their belligerence which assures it," he said.

Mr Allister said the EU was "chasing moonbeams" by wanting Northern Ireland to remain in the single market or customs union.

"It is not going to happen. We in the UK joined as one nation and we must leave as one nation," he said.

Mr Verhofstadt said it was up to the UK to find a way to avoid new controls being implemented at the border.

"Every solution inside Brexit needs to take into account that the peace process and Good Friday Agreement is secure and there is no hard border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland," he said.

"It is something that is a concern that is not sufficiently present around the negotiating table."

Mr Verhofstadt later met business and community leaders in the Armagh-Monaghan border area.

He will meet Taoiesach Leo Varadkar and Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin today in Dublin, where he will also address a special joint sitting of three Dail committees.

Belfast Telegraph

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