Northern Ireland news

Leo Varadkar says 'don't panic' as concern mounts over hard Brexit

Leo Varadkar said the UK commitment to no border in the Irish Sea should not give any cause for panic. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has sought to calm nerves over a potential hard Brexit, saying amendments to the British government's customs bill would not alter Dublin's position.

He said Monday night's vote backing a commitment to no border in the Irish Sea, which is said to put the EU's 'backstop' in jeopardy, should not give any cause for panic.

Mr Varadkar said the amendments agreed by Downing Street at the behest of Brexiteers "shouldn't give us any reason to change our position" in the withdrawal negotiations.

The taoiseach said there was a "lot of political instability in London and turmoil in Westminster".

He warned of "more twists and turns in the months ahead".

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The Fine Gael leader said a withdrawal agreement between the UK and EU could be reached by October but cautioned that the accompanying legislation would not necessarily be endorsed by MPs at Westminster.

"It's not evident, or not obvious, that the government of Britain has the majority for any form of Brexit quite frankly," he said.

The taoiseach also said his government needed to "step up our preparations for a no-deal scenario" but added that such an outcome was unlikely.

The Department of Foreign Affairs had said earlier that the UK government had always opposed a border in the Irish Sea, so the amendment to that effect was unsurprising.

A department spokesman said: "The UK has also repeatedly committed to avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, most recently in last week's white paper.

"In fact the Withdrawal Act, passed last month, legally binds the UK government to this commitment."

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But Sinn Féin deputy leader Michelle O'Neill said the British government had "tore up" its own Brexit proposals and she called on the taoiseach to protect Ireland’s interests.

"In light of the British government’s duplicity, cast-iron legal assurances are clearly now required to protect the Irish protocol and backstop," she said.

But the DUP's Sammy Wilson said the votes his party backed would ensure the UK would have a "stronger hand" in its negotiations with the EU.

"Barnier can bluster, Vardkar and Coveney can foot stamp all they like, but the fact remains that the prime minister has now got the support of whole of parliament in opposing their demands that Northern Ireland would stay in the single market and customs union," he said.

"Not only does this safeguard Northern Ireland’s position in the United Kingdom but equally important, it ensures Northern Ireland producers will have free access to our biggest market in Great Britain, thus safeguarding tens of thousands of Northern Ireland jobs."

SDLP MLA Claire Hanna said Monday night had made the likelihood of no deal Brexit "one step closer".

Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson said the EU 'backstop' had been "truly kicked into touch and essentially rejected" by Westminster.

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said Westminster had "undermined the interests of Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement by passing amendments backed by hard Brexiteers".

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