Taoiseach says Brexit deal is opportunity for north

Tánaiste Simon Coveney (left) and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar speak at a press conference on Brexit at Government Buildings in Dublin 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar welcomed the draft agreement on the terms for Britain's withdrawal from the European Union as he delivered a statement at Government Buildings in Dublin tonight.

Mr Varadkar said the deal presented an economic opportunity for the north.

"I also believe that the trading arrangements envisaged in the text, if embraced, represent a genuine economic opportunity for Northern Ireland business, with unfettered access both to Great Britain and the EU markets," he said.

He thanked other EU leaders and opposition parties in Ireland for supporting the Dublin government's objectives in the negotiation process.

Mr Varadkar said the Republic's priorities throughout the Brexit negotiations had been protecting the peace process; maintaining the Common Travel Area on the island; maintaining the Republic's place at the "heart of Europe"; and protecting jobs and the economy.

"On each of these priorities we have reached a satisfactory outcome today," he said.

He said the draft text underpinned the "fundamental rights" enshrined in the Good Friday agreement.

Mr Varadkar said avoiding a hard border had been "one of the most difficult challenges" of the process.

He said the draft withdrawal agreement had fully spelt out the backstop arrangement.

The taoiseach said the EU and UK would establish a shared customs territory, with Northern Ireland applying some additional rules for goods to ensure a free-flowing border.

He made clear the backstop would remain in place "unless and until" a better solution is agreed.

"I firmly hope that we can achieve a better solution and we will be working strenuously to that end," he said.

Mr Varadkar said he had not spoken to Theresa May today.

"I haven't had a chance to speak to her today, I'm sure we will speak over the next couple of days.

"I'm very conscious that what's going to happen at Westminster is an internal matter for the United Kingdom and it may not be appropriate for the Dublin government to be interfering or lobbying in their affairs, but certainly I will be speaking to the prime minister over the next couple of days.

"I will be speaking to some of the Northern Ireland parties tomorrow, Sinn Féin, SDLP, Alliance and the Northern Ireland Green Party."

Mr Varadkar said he had not yet spoken to DUP leader Arlene Foster.

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"I haven't spoken to her today but I'm sure we will be in contact in the next couple of days.

"There are sensitives there and I certainly heard what Arlene had to say today, the DUP is the DUP, it's a unionist party, it's not going to be told what to do by the Irish government, but the door is always open and the phone is always on.

"I am always willing to speak to her or anyone in the DUP to offer any clarifications or any assurances that they may wish to have."

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Mr Varadkar hailed Mrs May for "honouring her promise" in relation to Ireland.

"No international negotiation gives one side everything it wants," he said.

"For us the very notion of Brexit is unwelcome and brings adverse consequences.

"At the same time I want to acknowledge that these negotiations have been very tough and a difficult experience for everyone involved and, with this in mind, I want to acknowledge prime minister's May's integrity in honouring her promise to protect the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement, and her commitment of avoiding a hard border. She has been true to her word."

Asked what happens if the draft agreement is not voted through Westminster, Mr Varadkar said: "I think what we have in the joint political declaration is an outline of what the future relationship could look like and should this deal be agreed by Westminster and the European Parliament we can then begin negotiations on that future relationship.

"It is a very ambitious one, one that involves a deep and close relationship between the EU and the UK and something that we look forward to working on during the transition phase - if we get to it.

"It's impossible for me to predict how vote in Westminster will go, but I do think people have consistently underestimated the mettle and courage of prime minister May, so let's see how she gets on, obviously if it's defeated in Westminster, it's hard to know where we go from there, as others have said it's maybe hard Brexit or no hard Brexit at all, but that's a decision for the UK parliament to make."

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Mr Varadkar said he was absolutely committed to working with the UK to secure a "deep future relationship" post-Brexit and to restoring the powersharing institutions at Stormont.

He also repeated a message he directed to Northern Ireland unionists earlier in the day.

"Our approach is not intended in any way to be a threat to you or to your identity," he said.

"We never wanted Brexit - our goal is simply to protect the peace and the Good Friday Agreement from any unintended or undesirable consequences."

He said the draft withdrawal agreement "states in black and white" that the Republic and the EU fully respect the constitutional status of Northern Ireland as part of the UK.

"This can only change if the majority of people in Northern Ireland want it to," he said.

Asked on whether the backstop was bulletproof Mr Varadkar added: "I think what I said last December what we had to do is to turn all of the commitments that were made into a legally binding text and an international treaty, and that's what we have here today.

"So this is even stronger than what we had back in December, there is of course a bit of a way to go, there is the possibility this could be defeated in Westminster or even the European Parliament, but we've now turned a political promise into a legally binding treaty agreed to by the UK government."

Nick Timothy, the prime minister's former chief of staff who was one of her closest political lieutenants, was scathing about the "capitulation" in the Brexit deal.

"Of course, British compromises were inevitable," he wrote in The Daily Telegraph.

"But the proposal presented to Cabinet is a capitulation. Worse, it is a capitulation not only to Brussels, but to the fears of the British negotiators themselves, who have shown by their actions that they never believed Brexit can be a success.

"This includes, I say with the heaviest of hearts, the prime minister."

He hinted the UK should be prepared to threaten Brussels with reduced security co-operation to secure a better deal.

"With the stakes raised so high, the government should be prepared, at last, to use all its leverage, including Britain's contribution to European security," he said.

"When Parliament rejects the prime minister's proposal, as surely it will, there will still be time for ministers to negotiate something better."

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