The DUP has refused to give ground on its border backstop opposition during a “robust and very frank” meeting with Ireland’s deputy premier.
Simon Coveney met party leader Arlene Foster and colleagues at Stormont in a bid to offer reassurances on the withdrawal treaty’s most contentious provision.
The meeting came during a packed schedule of meetings for Mr Coveney in Belfast as he urged politicians and business and community representatives to get behind the EU/UK deal.
“I don’t think anyone would have expected that the conversation would have resulted in agreement on the backstop between the DUP and the Irish government but certainly I think it was useful to have an open and frank discussion,” said Mr Coveney afterwards.
Mrs Foster told Mr Coveney the Irish government and other EU members needed to drop their insistence on the backstop.
“The backstop is not needed,” she said.
“No-one is going to build a hard border. We will work with the (UK) Government to reach a better deal for the United Kingdom but this will require more pragmatism from the European Union.
“Exiting the European Union without a deal is not our favoured outcome. To reach a better deal will require a change of heart in Dublin and Brussels.
“I trust the Irish government will reflect on our principled objections to the Withdrawal Agreement and recognise that there is a better way which can work for both the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom.”
Under the terms of the proposed withdrawal deal, the backstop would only be triggered if a wider trade agreement between the UK and the EU failed to materialise before the end of the Brexit implementation period – whether that be at its current expiration date in late 2020 or at a later date if the implementation period is extended.
The measure, which is designed to avoid the re-emergence of any border checks, would see the UK as a whole effectively remain in the EU customs union while Northern Ireland would also have to comply with a number of single market regulations.
Mrs Foster, whose party described the exchanges with Mr Coveney as at times “very frank”, added: “The Withdrawal Agreement is not a fair deal and we cannot support it. It should be no more acceptable to build a new east-west border than it is to build a new north-south border.”
During Thursday, Mr Coveney met Northern Ireland business leaders, trade unions, farmers’ representatives, women’s groups and other people working in the voluntary and community sector.
He claimed there was consensus support for the proposed deal.
“I have to say that in all the meetings we have had today there is very strong support for what the Prime Minister is advocating for now and I wanted to try to reinforce many of those messages,” he said.
When asked did he think the DUP was “out of step” with public opinion in Northern Ireland, he responded: “It’s not for me to say that. The DUP have a very important constituency, they are the largest party in Northern Ireland, I respect that, but I’ve got to listen to the other political parties too and business organisations and community organisations.
“I think we have a job to do to all work together here to try to navigate a way through what is a very complex and difficult negotiation.”
Mr Coveney, who said his meeting with the DUP was “robust”, also held talks with Sinn Fein at Parliament Buildings, with the republican party urging the Irish government and other EU member states to “hold firm” in the face of Brexiteer calls to ditch the backstop.
“As this unfolds it is crucially important that the Tanaiste and the Irish government continues to stand up for the people here in the north,” said party vice president Michelle O’Neill.
“I put it to the Tanaiste that the DUP are on the wrong side of this argument, they bizarrely are actually turning their face against the interests of the citizens here.
“As we see how this unfolds in the next number of days and weeks, I think it’s vitally important that the Irish government holds firm, along with the other member states, who gave assurances yesterday that they will remain firm, that there is no room for renegotiation or reopening up the negotiation that has already happened and concluded.”
Ms O’Neill said a no-deal “crash out” would be “catastrophic”.
“The ramifications are just unthinkable,” she said.