Northern Ireland news

Theresa May warns that crashing out of EU would 'put union at risk'

Theresa May said a no deal Brexit was a threat to the union. Picture by Alastair Grant/PA Wire

THE DUP was last night calling on Theresa May to explain how a no deal Brexit would spark "changes to everyday life in Northern Ireland" and put the union at risk.

The British prime minister made the claim on the eve of Westminster's crucial vote on her withdrawal agreement.

The deal agreed in November with the EU has the backing of Stormont's nationalist and non-unionist parties, as well as the majority of north's business, farming and community groups.

However, with Westminster scheduled to deliver its verdict tonight, the majority of MPs – including the DUP – look set to reject it, in a move that is expected to increase the likelihood of a no deal Brexit.

As Mrs May yesterday continued last-ditch efforts to win over MPs, a letter from Brussels sought to provide assurances around the withdrawal agreement.

European Council president Donald Tusk and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker stressed they were "not in a position" to rewrite or amend the deal but insisted the EU does not want the controversial backstop arrangement to remain in place permanently after Brexit.

Addressing MPs at Westminster, the Tory leader said that "to those who think we should reject this deal in favour of no deal, because we cannot get every assurance we want, I ask what would a no deal Brexit do to strengthen the hand of those campaigning for Scottish independence - or indeed those demanding a border poll in Northern Ireland".

She also said: "With no deal we would have: no implementation period, no security co-operation, no guarantees for UK citizens overseas, no certainty for businesses and workers here in Stoke and across the UK, and changes to everyday life in Northern Ireland that would put the future of our union at risk."

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds called on Mrs May to clarify what she meant by her remarks about the north and threats to the union.

"The prime minister must explain this comment – what exactly would the government be changing?" he said.

"If this is nothing more than scaremongering, then the prime minister should cease from such foolish talk. Indeed, the Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar has said that the Republic of Ireland is not making preparations for a hard border even in the event of no deal being agreed."

The North Belfast MP dismissed the assurances from Brussels, saying there was "nothing new" in the letter.

"Instead of meaningless letters, the prime minister should now ask for and deliver changes to the withdrawal agreement," he said.

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann also rejected Brussels' reassurances, saying they would only have worth if "backed up by changes to the legal text in the withdrawal agreement".

"While some of the assurances may be a step in the right direction in acknowledging the problems thrown up by the backstop, without legal standing they are not worth the paper they are written on," he said.

Sinn Féin leader Mary-Lou McDonald stressed that Ireland's interests needed to be protected regardless of the outcome of tonight's Westminster vote.

"Whatever transpires at Westminster, it is essential that Irish interests are protected north and south, that the economy is protected, that people's rights are protected and preserved, and of course that the Good Friday Agreement is preserved and protected in all of its parts."

Mrs McDonald said "crunch time" was approaching and "the stakes are very high".

"It is our view that in the midst of this chaos, that there are many in the British political establishment who have played a game of chicken with Ireland, and with Irish interests – that is a disreputable way to carry out your politics to say the very least," she said.

"But we remain firm, we have commitments from our partners at a European level, that the needs of this island north and south have been recognised and understood, and will be protected in the most fundamental of ways and we expect that those commitments will be honoured."

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