Northern Ireland news

Leo Varadkar confident EU leaders will agree to second Article 50 extension

Leo Varadkar said he hoped Westminster could build sufficient consensus to enable the ratification of the withdrawal agreement

THE taoiseach has said he is confident today's emergency European Council will agree to extend the Brexit deadline, ensuring the UK doesn't crash out of the EU on Friday.

Leo Varadkar said he hoped Westminster could build sufficient consensus to enable the ratification of the withdrawal agreement, enabling an "orderly Brexit thereafter".

The Fine Gael leader was speaking yesterday in the Dáil before joining fellow EU leaders in Brussels as they consider Theresa May's request for an extension beyond April 12.

As Downing Street last night indicated that talks between the British government and Labour would continue tomorrow, EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said Brussels could amend the Political Declaration on future relations with the UK "within a few hours or days" to incorporate the customs union arrangement being discussed.

Mr Varadkar said Dublin was open to extending the Brexit deadline to allow time for the cross-party talks to "run their course and come to a conclusion".

He said he wanted the withdrawal agreement ratified so that negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and EU could begin.

The taoiseach said different views would be aired at today's summit but he was confident agreement would be reached.

However, he said "ongoing uncertainty in London" meant Dublin would continue its preparations for a no-deal.

Mr Varadkar also described Mr May's letter to European Council President Donald Tusk as a "positive step".

"It offers welcome assurances that the UK will prepare for the European Parliament elections and will hold them if the UK has not left the EU by 22 May," he said.

"Importantly, from our perspective, the prime minister acknowledges that the withdrawal agreement cannot be changed, and that any solution must respect that agreement in its entirety."

The taoiseach stressed that the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, cannot be renegotiated.

"It represents a finely balanced compromise, including the challenge of the UK leaving the EU without giving rise to the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland," he said.

As Mrs May met Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron ahead of today's summit, DUP leader Arlene Foster said it was “humiliating” to watch Tory leader "beg" the EU for an extension of Article 50.

The former first minister told UTV it was "quite painful to watch" the prime minister.

“We want to see a strong leadership, because we passionately believe in the United Kingdom – we passionately want it to be on the world stage and to realise its capacity and potential.

“But instead we have a prime minister who is going out basically to beg the European Union for an extension – even though everything should have been completed by now.”

The DUP leader said it would better for Mrs May to ask the EU to deal with the backstop.

“It has been the key issue – the House of Commons has made that very clear, that if the backstop was dealt with in an effective way, then we would be able to move on and we would be able to get the withdrawal agreement through the House of Commons,” she said.

Fianna Fáil leader Michéal Martin said the absence of a Stormont assembly had caused "damage" to Ireland.

"The threat of imposing direct rule in Northern Ireland is unacceptable and we need a serious effort to try to break the impasse," he said.

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin MEPs Martina Anderson and Matt Carthy will Mr Barnier today ahead of the Brussels summit to discuss the current impasse.

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