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Brexit text does not negatively impact UK’s integrity – Leo Varadkar

Leo Varadkar

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Leo Varadkar has said the Northern Ireland backstop must not be time limited

Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Leo Varadkar has sought to reassure unionists that there is no constitutional threat to the integrity of the UK.

He has said a draft Brexit deal between the UK and EU would “not negatively impact” the integrity of the UK.

But senior DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the text could precipitate the break-up of the union.

Talks have entered crunch time, with the Irish border the sticking point.

What’s thought to have been agreed?

The draft withdrawal agreement, which has been drawn up alongside a statement of future relations with the EU, has not been published, but is thought to run to some 500 pages.

It addresses the Northern Ireland backstop – the insurance policy arrangement that aims to guarantee that physical checks will not be reintroduced at the border with the Irish Republic, in the event of the EU and UK failing to agree a deal on future trading relations.

The backstop within the agreed draft is believed to avoid a return to a “hard border” with the Republic by keeping the UK as a whole aligned with the EU customs union for a limited time.

This has proven the most contentious part of the withdrawal negotiations, with concerns raised by Brexiteer Tories and the DUP over how it will work.

Media captionWhat will become of the Irish border when the UK leaves the European Union?

What has the Irish government said?

On Wednesday morning, Leo Varadkar appeared in the Dáil Éireann (Irish parliament) to answer questions from opposition parties.

He said he recognised that “for the unionist community this is quite a difficult time”.

“I know many unionists may be feeling vulnerable, isolated and many may be quite worried about what may be agreed in the coming days,” he added.

“I want to say to them – the Good Friday Agreement will be protected – it includes a recognition of the fact we respect the territorial integrity of the UK and the principle of consent, that there will be no change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland unless a majority of people say so.”

He said he was happy to have that written into any agreement as a legal guarantee.

Mr Varadkar held a special meeting on Wednesday morning to discuss the text with his cabinet.

He stressed that he did not want to share detail or say anything that “might make things more difficult for the prime minister” ahead of her crucial cabinet meeting at 14:00 GMT.

But he added that if things progresses, the draft deal could provide the basis for a summit of EU leaders on 25 November.

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Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is the chief whip of the Democratic Unionist Party and MP for Lagan Valley

What has the DUP said?

The reaction from the party that the UK government relies on to win key Commons votes has been wholly critical.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told BBC Radio Four’s Today programme that the “Northern Ireland backstop has been rolled into a UK-wide backstop”, which could have consequences for the union.

“I think it has been described by one commentator as like a swimming pool, and Northern Ireland will be in at the deep end,” he added.

“Many people conclude that this will lead to a regulatory border in the Irish Sea. It means the end of the UK single market.

“In the longer term, when the UK does new trade deals with the rest of the world, Northern Ireland won’t benefit from that, won’t be part of that, because we will have to remain aligned with the European Union and that will lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom,” he added.

On Wednesday morning, DUP leader Arlene Foster travelled to London, but the party has said there is no meeting planned with the prime minister.

Mrs Foster told Sky News: “It is worrying times, there’s no doubt about that.”

She added that she hoped the party would “get to see the text so that we can make our own judgement on that”.

What have other parties in Northern Ireland said about the draft text?

Sinn Féin’s Stormont leader Michelle O’Neill tweeted that she would be speaking to Mrs May later on Wednesday afternoon.

She said that there “must be protection for the Good Friday Agreement” and that the backstop “must be cast in iron”.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood also said “the big problem” would be getting the draft deal “through parliament”.

“The only people who are precipitating the break-up of the United Kingdom are the DUP,” he added.

“It (the union) isn’t under threat and I think talking that up has created a threat in itself,” he said.

Alliance deputy leader, Stephen Farry, said people needed “to be incredibly responsible”.

“Dramatising this as a constitutional question is extremely worrying and dangerous and indeed irresponsible and it’s not just the DUP who are doing it, you have people like Boris Johnson last night doing it, talking about Dublin control,” he said.

Those three parties and the Greens, who all campaigned to remain in the EU, are now expected to meet the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Dublin on Thursday.

The Ulster Unionist Party, meanwhile, has said there must be a “sensible deal” that respects the result of the referendum and maintains the integrity of the UK.

“There must be no ambiguity, constructive or otherwise, in any deal about Northern Ireland’s place within the Union in a post-Brexit UK,” said party leader Robin Swann.

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Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley pictured entering Downing Street for the special cabinet meeting to discuss the Brexit draft deal

Remind me, why is the backstop needed?

Both the UK and EU are committed to ensuring physical checks at the Irish border will not be reintroduced.

But if a solution cannot be found as part of a wider deal, the EU insisted on a legally binding “backstop”.

Until Tuesday, EU and UK negotiators had each come up with their own proposals for the Northern Ireland backstop, but had been unable to agree on a way forward.

Focus is on to Downing Street this Wednesday afternoon, as Theresa May is holding a special meeting of her cabinet to set out the details of the proposed text.

Brexit text does not negatively impact UK’s integrity – Leo Varadkar}

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