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No deal Brexit not inevitable says Coveney

The Tánaiste has held talks with NI politicians at Stormont over Brexit backstop. Credit: Press Eye

Ireland's deputy premier has insisted a crash Brexit is not inevitable.

Simon Coveney said those predicting a defeat for Prime Minister Theresa May when MPs vote on the Withdrawal Agreement next week should not take things for granted.

Mr Coveney said while Ireland would not interfere in the parliamentary process at Westminster, it did want to offer assurances that the contentious border backstop was not what some Brexiteers were "misrepresenting" and "spinning" it as.

The Tánaiste held meetings with a number of business and civic groups in Belfast on Thursday before holding talks with the region's politicians at Stormont.

Addressing the media between meetings, Mr Coveney was asked whether a no deal looked inevitable, given indications Mrs May will lose the vote on her agreement next week.

"Absolutely not," he replied.

"First of all, I don't think we should take anything for granted next week."

One of the things that I can say confidentially is there is not a majority of people in Westminster who want to see a no-deal Brexit, in fact there is a majority who want to prevent that from happening.

– Simon Coveney TD

He added: "What we haven't seen yet is a majority to support a mechanism that can actually achieve that and, in my view, the only person who actually has a deal that is in place and in writing, that can actually achieve that in a way that solves so many of the complex problems linked to Brexit, is the Prime Minister herself."

Mr Coveney said EU leaders were happy to offer "clarification, reassurance and definition" around the backstop to help Mrs May get the deal over the line, but he again made clear the substantive terms of the agreement could not be renegotiated.

"If people are concerned about that, yes of course we are happy to look at ways in which we can provide clarification and reassurance and definition in terms of what is meant by that backstop, its temporary nature, and the fact it is only a fall-back, insurance mechanism in the first place anyway, that we hope to never use.

"I mean, are we really suggesting that this whole deal is going to be pulled down because of something that may never be used in the first place and even if it is, will only be used on a temporary basis?

"Is that what people are actually advocating for?"

Mr Coveney has been critical of Brexiteers who have claimed the backstop would undermine the constitutional sovereignty of the UK and bring a united Ireland a step closer by creating barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

"This isn't a threat to anybody, the Irish government certainly doesn't have any ulterior motives here, apart from to try to protect the status quo on this island, the peace process on this island, the fact that we have a border but it's a border that's largely invisible when it comes to trade and movement of goods," he said.

Mr Coveney acknowledged that some unionists had "genuine" concerns about the backstop.

But he said he found those concerns usually subsided when the facts around it were laid out.

Under the terms of the proposed withdrawal deal, the backstop would only be triggered if a wider trade agreement between the UK and the EU failed to materialise before the end of the Brexit implementation period - whether that be at its current expiration date in late 2020 or at a later date if the implementation period is extended.

The measure, which is designed to avoid the re-emergence of any border checks, would see the UK as a whole effectively remain in the EU customs union while Northern Ireland would also have to comply with a number of single market regulations.

"I don't believe there is a sting in the backstop at all," said the Tánaiste.

"I think that some people have created the impression that there is and somehow some ulterior motive that is going to weaken Northern Ireland as part of the UK in the future, I don't accept that premise in the first place. That's not what's in the text of the Withdrawal Agreement if people read it."

The Irish government has also rejected any suggestion that a future Stormont executive could veto aspects of the backstop.

Mr Coveney echoed remarks by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on Wednesday when he expressed concern about a UK Government proposal that, if the backstop came into operation, would mean the devolved legislature in Belfast would have to agree to any subsequent changes to EU laws impacting on it.

SDLP reaction

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood commended the Tánaiste for doing a 'good job' of representing the interests of the people of NI. Credit: Press Eye

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood has expressed concern Brexit is being used as an excuse to delay resolving the two-year political impasse at Stormont.

After holding talks with Ireland's deputy leader Simon Coveney at Stormont, Mr Eastwood accused the UK Government of letting Northern Ireland "wither on the vine" through inaction.

"There will always be an excuse for not sorting this problem out, the people cannot wait any longer and I think the Irish Government agree with us on that point," he said.

Mr Eastwood said the public was crying out for political leadership in the region and they could not afford to wait until the Brexit uncertainty ended.

"We don't know that next Tuesday is going to resolve anything, we don't even know that the 29th of March is going to resolve anything, there will always be an excuse," he said.

Mr Eastwood also commended Mr Coveney for doing a "good job" of representing the interests of the people of Northern Ireland in the negotiations.

Alliance reaction

Credit: Press Eye

After meeting with Ireland's deputy leader Simon Coveney, Alliance leader Naomi Long said politicians at Westminster needed to deal with reality.

"At this point, with less than 80 days to go, what we need is certainty and clarity," she said.

"We need people to stop chasing after unicorns and start dealing with the reality.

"The reality is a stark choice - it is either bank the backstop or stop Brexit, but it's clear that Parliament has said no to no deal."

Sinn Féin reaction

Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O'Neill says a no-deal 'crash-out' would be 'catastrophic'. Credit: Press Eye

Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O'Neill urged the Irish Government and other EU member states to "hold firm" in the face of Brexiteer calls to ditch the backstop.

"As this unfolds it is crucially important that the Tánaiste and the Irish Government continue to stand up for the people here in the north," she said.

"I put it to the Tánaiste that the DUP are on the wrong side of this argument, they bizarrely are actually turning their face against the interests of the citizens here."

"As we see how this unfolds in the next number of days and weeks I think it's vitally important that the Irish Government holds firm, along with the other member states, who gave assurances yesterday that they will remain firm, that there is no room for renegotiation or reopening up the negotiation that has already happened and concluded."

Ms O'Neill added a no-deal "crash out" would be "catastrophic".

"The ramifications are just unthinkable," she said.

DUP reaction

DUP leader Arlene Foster says 'the Withdrawal Agreement is not a fair deal and we can not support it.' Credit: Press Eye

Speaking after the meeting Mrs Foster said: "We want to see a sensible exit from the European Union which works for the Republic of Ireland as well as Northern Ireland.

"The Withdrawal Agreement is not a fair deal and we can not support it.

"It should be no more acceptable to build a new east-west border than it is to build a new north-south border. The backstop is not needed. No one is going to build a hard border.

"We will work with the Government to reach a better deal for the United Kingdom but this will require more pragmatism from the European Union.

Exiting the European Union without a deal is not our favoured outcome. To reach a better deal will require a change of heart in Dublin and Brussels. I trust the Irish government will reflect on our principled objections to the Withdrawal Agreement and recognise that there is a better way which can work for both the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom.”