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Important Northern Ireland voice heard in Brexit talks, says Leo Varadkar in first visit as Taoiseach

Solutions need to be asked for they won't be offered, says Taoiseach

By Jonathan Bell

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said it is crucial the Executive is up and running for the impending Brexit talks, so the voice of the people of Northern Ireland is heard.

Mr Varadkar is in Belfast for his first official visit to Northern Ireland since he replaced Enda Kenny as Taoiseach.

Speaking at Queen's University he said he hoped to be joined by a First and deputy First Minister in London for the next stage in the bidding to bring the 2023 Rugby World Cup to Ireland later this year.

"Who will speak for Northern Ireland and her 1.8 million people?" he said of the Brexit negotiations.

"Time is running out, and I fear there will be no extra time allowed."

He added: "We need to hear the voice of those elected representatives here in the north.

"We need the Executive, the Assembly, the North South Ministerial Council and the British Irish Council up and running and acting in the interests of our peoples.

"We need that more than ever, and we need it now."

He said he would work to ensure the best outcome for Ireland in the Brexit negations adding: "At a time when Brexit threatens to drive a wedge between north and south we need to build more bridges and fewer borders.

"While the UK is leaving the EU, the Government I lead is committed to remaining at the heart of Europe; preserving the hard-won peace on this island and protecting and growing our economy in the face of Brexit.

"It is important that all parts of the body politic across these islands face up to the challenges presented and are clear about what they want to - and can realistically - achieve."

Mr Varadkar said that while the onus was on the British government to come up with proposals on the border, there needed to be a "meaningful" conversation on finding a solution.

He raised the prospect of a EU-UK customs union, similar to the union's arrangement with Turkey, or indeed a transition period that allows the UK to remain in the single market and customs union "while things are worked out".

He added: "These are the practical solutions I am proposing.

"These solutions will not be offered, they will have to be asked for.  And this can happen only after sufficient progress is made on an agreement on the financial settlement, protecting citizens’ rights and key issues relating to Ireland such as the Common Travel Area.

"North-South cooperation has also been important in normalising relationships on this island and in bringing real and practical benefits to all of our citizens.  It is a key part of the Good Friday Agreement and is embedded in the common framework of EU law and EU policies."

He said that it should be up to the British government to explain the benefit of any barrier to free trade and commerce placed on the island of Ireland through a border between the UK and Ireland.

Mr Varadkar said The Irish government will "discharge its responsibilities as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement".

"We will do all we can, in Brussels, in London and in Dublin, to achieve the best outcome for everyone on this island - to protect our peace, our freedom, our rights, and our prosperity," he said.

"The challenge in our generation is Brexit. The Brexit negotiations are well underway in Brussels. And, to quote Michel Barnier, the clock is ticking.

"Every single aspect of life in Northern Ireland could be affected by the outcome - jobs and the economy, the border, citizens rights, cross border workers, travel, trade, agriculture, energy, fisheries, aviation, EU funding, tourism, public services, the list goes on.

"In October, I will sit around the European Council table with 26 other Prime Ministers and we will decide together whether sufficient progress has been made on three key issues to allow the Brexit negotiations to proceed to the next phase.

"Those three key issues are citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and issues relating to Ireland.

"It will be a historic meeting for this island.

"It is my fervent hope that progress will have been made, but I do not underestimate the challenges we face."

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