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Leo Varadkar responds to civic nationalism letter by vowing that Irish citizens in north are a 'priority' in Brexit talks

Taoisech Leo Varadkar and TD Noel Rock at the opening of a new Housing Development by the Oaklee Housing Association in Ballymun, Dublin. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday November 5, 2018. See PA story IRISH Brexit Varadkar. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire.

TAOISEACH Leo Varadkar has insisted that the interests of Irish citizens north of the border are a "priority" in the Brexit negotiations.

The Fine Gael leader was responding to the open letter published in The Irish News yesterday and signed by 1,000 people from civic nationalism.

Those who put their name to the letter, which calls on the taoiseach to protect the rights of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland, include sportsmen, actors, health professionals and businesspeople.

The signatories include Adrian Dunbar, James McClean and Jim Sheridan.

The letter welcomed the Fine Gael leader's commitment to represent the interests of northern nationalists at the Brexit negotiations but notes how all citizens north of the border are denied rights which are "taken for granted by citizens in other parts of these islands".

"The British Conservative government has rendered itself unable to effect any progress on these rights issues due to its dependence on the DUP," it said.

"Brexit threatens to deepen the rights crisis and there is a real danger of serious erosion of current guarantees."

The letter raised concerns about Brexit's impact on cross-border healthcare and education, as well a lack of representation for Northern Ireland in the European Parliament.

A similar letter, signed by 200 people from civic nationalism, was sent to Mr Varadkar in December last year.

Responding to the latest call, the taoiseach said his government was fully committed to working with the British government and Stormont's parties to seek the restoration of the devolved institutions.

"A fully functioning executive and assembly is the best means of ensuring that Irish language rights, marriage equality and legacy and justice issues are dealt with by elected representatives working on behalf of all the people of Northern Ireland," he said.

He said from the out of the Brexit negotiations, the Dublin government had set out to "protect the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, including rights, equality and citizenship", as set out in paragraph 52 of last December's EU-UK Joint Report.

"The government’s intensive efforts ensured that these issues have been pursued by the EU in the negotiations," the taoiseach said.

"Brexit negotiations are now at a critical stage with all focused on reaching agreement."

Mr Varadkar also highlighted how the Irish government intends to hold a referendum next year on a proposal to give Irish citizens living outside the Republic the right to vote in future presidential elections.

He said the interests of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland "are a priority in the ongoing Brexit negotiations".

Sinn Féin's Michelle O'Neill described the letter as "very positive and very welcome".

"It's very timely because now is the time to be very loud – this is the time to make sure voices are heard," she said.

A spokesman for the SDLP said: "The SDLP welcomes any type of engagement with the Irish government around rights in the mouth of Brexit.

"It is of course disappointing that we don't have the political institutions up and running to do that job at the minute."

John Cushnahan, a former leader of the Alliance Party Fine Gael MEP, called on the signatories to write a similar letter to Sinn Féin.

While accepting that the DUP were a threat to rights, he suggested a second letter "to another political player who are able to exercise potentially what could be an even more pivotal influence in neutralising the influence of the DUP – this party is Sinn Féin. In any final vote at Westminster on the Brexit deal, Sinn Féin MP’s would have seven votes."

And he added: "The political arithmetic at Westminster for securing the correct political decision which would protect the rights of citizens in both parts of Ireland is on a knife edge ... these 1000 signatories should ask Sinn Féin to end their sterile policy of abstention."

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