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Parties come together to defend post-Brexit open border

Alliance leader Naomi Long, SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, Sinn Féin's leader in the north Michelle O'Neill and Green Party leader Steven Agnew spak to the media at Stormont after issuing their joint statment on Brexit
Paul Ainsworth

A joint statement from Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance and Greens has called for the north to remain part of the single market and customs union.

The united position was released ahead of crucial Brexit negotiations this week and was signed by Michelle O'Neill, Colum Eastwood, Naomi Long and Steven Agnew.

The rare joint statement follows a failed attempt by parties to form a “progressive alliance” opposing a hard Brexit during the snap general election last year.

The four leaders said they “share the common position that we should stay within both the single market and customs union and that there should be no hard border on the island of Ireland or between the two islands”.

“This is critical to protecting investment, jobs, trade and the hard-won peace."

They also referred to the “backstop solution” agreed by British prime minister Theresa May and the EU last December which proposes the UK remain aligned to the customs union if no Brexit deal is agreed before next year's withdrawal.

They said this is "the bottom line in order to safeguard our political and economic stability now and for the future”.

The statement added: “The political parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly wish to reaffirm our common position that we cannot withstand exclusion from the single market or customs union.

"That the protection of the Good Friday Agreement in all of its parts, including North/South and East/West co-operation is critical to maintaining relationships within, and between these islands."

Sinn Fein vice president and Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill said the EU negotiators needed to hear "loud and clear" that people in the region wanted to remain within European structures.

"It's important that we share this platform on the issue of Brexit because the majority of people voted here on a cross-community basis to remain within the EU, that is the position which we are true to," she said.

"For my part the DUP don't speak for people in the north, so it is important that we come together, those who share a common view in terms of the implications of Brexit, who share a common view in terms of what needs to happen next."

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the parties were not adopting a "political" position, rather a "sensible" one.

He claimed elements of the DUP were also "warming" to the idea of continued alignment with the EU in terms of customs and single market rules.

"It's absolutely clear we are all from different political parties, from different perspectives," he told the cross-party event at Parliament Buildings in Belfast.

"But on this issue it's important that as many of us as possible stand together to make it very, very clear - to both the British Government but also to the European Commission - that we cannot countenance a hard border in Ireland - equally we do not want to see a hard border or any kind of border down the Irish sea.

"What we want to see is open access for business and communities to travel and do business across the European continent."

Alliance leader Naomi Long insisted the issue was not one that could be divided along traditional green or orange lines, despite the absence of a unionist in the multi-party gathering.

"The issue of Brexit is not one which will only affect nationalists or only affect unionists - it will affect every single person who lives in this region and many who live outside but who rely on this region for trade and investment," she said.

Mrs Long said the Government was not hearing the majority opinion.

"They are only hearing the most extreme voices in terms of Brexit, that is not a healthy democratic situation," she added.

"I wish we were here (in a functioning devolved assembly) able to have these debates and discussions because I think what the assembly would be saying at this time is much more in line with the joint statement which we have issued today."

Green Party NI leader Steven Agnew said: "The people of Northern Ireland voted to Remain and their voices are not being adequately represented, that's why we have come together today to do just that."

Neither of the main unionist parties were involved in the joint initiative. The DUP campaigned for Brexit and while the Ulster Unionists advocated a Remain vote, the party has since committed to the implementation of the June 2016 vote to Leave.

British prime minister Theresa May favours a customs partnership arrangement to avoid a hard border, whereby the UK would collect tariffs on behalf of the EU.

She faces serious opposition from Brexiteer members of her own government who back a model relying on technology and advance customs checks to minimise impediments at the frontier.

The EU has expressed doubts about both options.

Last December, the UK and EU agreed the need for a "backstop" option that would ensure no return of a hard border in Ireland - through an alignment of regulations across the island - even if a wider Brexit trade deal failed to materialise.

The UK rejected a subsequent attempt by the EU to translate that agreement into legally operable text in a proposed withdrawal treaty. A political stand-off has ensued over the vexed issue.

The four pro-Remain parties at Stormont insisted the backstop was an essential bottom line to safeguard stability on the island.

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