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DUP's Foster pours scorn on Bradley border 'scaremongering'

Sinn Fein says 'we're in process of achieving referendum'

By Suzanne Breen, political editor

DUP leader Arlene Foster has accused the Government of "scaremongering" after reports that the Secretary of State said a border poll was far more likely following a no-deal Brexit.

The Politics Home website reported that Karen Bradley issued the warning at a Cabinet meeting yesterday.

The website claimed she said a border poll on Irish unity was "far more likely" if the UK crashed out of the EU without a withdrawal agreement. The reported warning came as Sinn Fein said it believed a border poll was nearer than ever.

Under the Good Friday Agreement a referendum on Irish unity can only be called by the Secretary of State if there is evidence that a majority in Northern Ireland would support a united Ireland.

A Cabinet source told Politics Home: "The view was that a border poll in Northern Ireland was all but inevitable if there is a no-deal Brexit because Sinn Fein would demand it straight away. The Secretary of State would have no choice but to call one."

But the DUP leader last night dismissed the speculation about a border poll as a tactic by a Government desperate to secure support for the Prime Minister's Brexit plan.

"Resorting to such obvious scaremongering only serves to highlight how threadbare the Government's arguments are," Mrs Foster said.

"Instead of the cast-iron guarantees promised when the (Brexit) vote was delayed in December, we are instead given just another round of 'Project Fear'.

"As people across Northern Ireland continue to suffer because of a veto placed on devolution by republicans, the Secretary of State's focus should be on making progress rather than fuelling united Ireland fantasies."

The DUP leader said her party didn't want to leave the EU without a deal but it wouldn't sign up to any withdrawal agreement that weakened the Union.

"The greatest threat to the Union is the backstop within the current withdrawal agreement which Karen Bradley is such an enthusiastic advocate for," she added.

Speaking in Brussels yesterday after meeting EU Brexit chief negotiator Michel Barnier, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said that in the event of a no-deal Brexit, her party would push London for a border poll.

"We believe we're in a process now in achieving a referendum on Irish unity," she added.

Sinn Fein MLA Emma Sheerin last night said a no-deal Brexit would lead to a hard border and economic catastrophe.

"In such a context, a referendum on Irish reunification, as provided for in the Good Friday Agreement, is the sensible, logical and entirely rational response which, if passed, would see the North readmitted to the EU," she said.

"A leading international report recently concluded that reunification would provide an economic windfall of €23.5 billion by 2025, whereas a no-deal Brexit which would lead to a slump of over €10 billion."

Responding to the Secretary of State's reported border poll warning, the Alliance Party said: "Brexit poses a massive threat to the cohesion of Northern Ireland and the shared society underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement.

"While Alliance respects everyone's constitutional aspiration, the priority must be to agree a pragmatic way forward for Northern Ireland to mitigate the risks from Brexit and to achieve the maximum cross-community support for it."

The speculation came as a report also claimed Brexit may have brought the prospect of a border poll closer.

The fifth Peace Monitoring Report said a future referendum on Irish unity "may be sooner than might otherwise have been anticipated".

It stated: "The debate around Brexit has moved the issue of holding a border poll further up the political agenda."

It quoted a LucidTalk poll that found if there was a referendum on the border, 45% would vote for Northern Ireland to remain in the UK, while 42% would vote for unity, with 13% of respondents still undecided. Meanwhile, the DUP last night accused the Prime Minister of "still not listening" to the party on the backstop and said she seemed intent on putting a "dead" plan to Parliament.

Mrs Foster told the BBC that "nobody wants to throw Ireland under the bus". She opposed extending Article 50 and said Mrs May must go back to Brussels and secure a better deal which removed the backstop.

"There is no need for the backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement," Mrs Foster said.

"Everyone has stated they don't want there to be a hard border. We have said it, the Republic of Ireland's government has said it, Westminster has said it,"

Mrs May's Brexit plans received a major setback yesterday after she suffered a second damaging Commons defeat within 24 hours.

MPs backed an amendment demanding the Government return within three sitting days with a new plan if it is defeated in next week's crunch vote on the Prime Minister's Brexit deal.

The House voted by 308 to 297 in favour of the amendment tabled by the pro-Remain Tory MP Dominic Grieve with the support of other Conservative rebels.

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