Northern Ireland

Sinn Féin says UK government 'seeking to row back' on backstop

MARY LOU MCDONALD
Image caption Mary Lou McDonald said Mr Barnier reiterated that there will be "no withdrawal agreement without a protocol that deals with the Irish question"

The president of Sinn Féin has accused the British government of "seeking to row back" on commitments to the Brexit backstop.

Mary Lou McDonald was speaking after meeting the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels.

She repeated a call for a special EU summit in September to resolve the Irish border issue in time for the crunch October summit.

The border has been the sticking point in the Brexit talks.

The UK and EU have agreed there should be no hard border in Ireland, but are split over how to achieve it.

Ms McDonald met the EU's chief Brexit negotiator along with deputy leader Michelle O'Neill on Monday.

She said Mr Barnier had reiterated that there would no be withdrawal agreement without a protocol that "deals with the Irish question".

Following the prime minister's visit to Belfast last week she said Theresa May's "intervention" had been "unhelpful".

"She said she had come to Ireland to listen and reassure people - in our view she did neither," said Ms McDonald.

'Catastrophic'

The UK and the EU agree that a backstop - effectively a safety net - is needed to avoid a hard border but disagree on what it should look like.

The backstop is needed if appropriate customs arrangements cannot be agreed in time for the end of the transition period in December 2020.

With the deadlock ongoing, both the UK and the EU are stepping up preparations for a "no deal" Brexit.

During a visit to Londonderry on Monday, Tánaiste (Irish deputy prime minister) Simon Coveney said that a no-deal Brexit would be "catastrophic for Britain but also very bad news for Ireland".

"I don't think there are any upsides to a no-deal scenario for the EU in any circumstances either," he said.

"Really, the responsibility is on all of us to find a way forward. I believe we will find a way forward, I'm optimistic."

Meanwhile, Ms McDonald warned that it was "unacceptable for the British government to consistently roll back on commitments they've made".

"It's very clear that Brexit raises very specific difficulties for the island of Ireland and we need a specific mechanism that protects the Good Friday Agreement, that ensures no hardening of the border and ensures no diminutions of citizens' rights."

The Sinn Féin delegation told Mr Barnier that the party wants to see the EU's backstop protected in legal text of the overall withdrawal agreement, and that it should apply until another solution is found.

Challenges

"I'm very pleased that in the course of our meeting Mr Barnier reiterated that there will be no withdrawal agreement without a protocol that deals with the Irish question and protects interests north and south," said Ms McDonald.

She said the challenge was now for "the British side".

"If they don't like the EU's protocol they need to produce their own, but it has to meet the specific needs and the agreed aims and objectives".

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The UK and EU do not want a hard border but are at odds over how to achieve that

On Friday, Prime Minister Theresa May said the EU needed to "evolve" its position on the proposals it had put forward regarding the Irish border in its White Paper.

She wants a "temporary customs arrangement" to apply to the whole of the UK, keeping it in a customs union with the EU for a limited period after the end of the proposed transition period.

The EU had proposed a backstop that would have kept Northern Ireland in the EU customs union, but the UK rejected that and said it would have created a border down the Irish Sea.

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