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Michelle O'Neill says it's 'increasingly likely that there will be a no-deal Brexit'

The Sinn Féin vice president said that the DUP “didn’t want the Stormont Executive to return because of Brexit”.

Image: Photojoiner

SINN FÉIN VICE-PRESIDENT Michelle O’Neill has said that it’s looking increasingly likely that there will be a no-deal Brexit.

“I think that it’s increasingly likely that there will be a hard border on the island of Ireland,” O’Neill told TheJournal.ie after she and Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald met with chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels this afternoon.

“No good will come of Brexit – there will be no winners.”

She said that after British Prime Minister Theresa May’s two-day visit to the North last week in particular, a no-deal Brexit looked increasingly likely.

May gave a speech in which she rejected the EU’s legislative translation of a ‘backstop’ agreement the EU and UK made in December, which would guarantee “regulatory alignment” on the island of Ireland in the event of no other solution to the border issue.

O’Neill said that Theresa May seemed to be using a “survival strategy” and handling Brexit “one day at a time”, which she said made a no-deal more likely.

A no-deal Brexit would mean that the UK leaves the European Union without a new agreement; it’s likely that a hard border would automatically go up on the island of Ireland in this case (which the EU has costed).

When asked whether Barnier agreed with her assessment, O’Neill said that he had explained it was a “sensitive time in negotiations”, but assured both leaders that there would be no withdrawal agreement without a “legally operable backstop”.

O’Neill said that his assurances were “quite strong”, and that she and McDonald would be discussing the backstop arrangement with Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney tomorrow.

The Executive and the North as an afterthought

McDonald and O’Neill also discussed the collapse of the Stormont Executive for the past year and a half, and the prospects of recommencing negotiations.

O’Neill said that as long as the DUP were supporting Theresa May’s minority government, there would be no chance of a return to devolved government.

If the parties returned, we’d have a majority that would be opposed to Brexit, so the DUP do not want to return to that.

She said that Barnier had said that in order for the North to be taken into account during Brexit talks, it needed to hear from voices from all corners in society or else “the North would be collateral damage for Brexit”.

Asked about how frustrating it was to hear the North being treated as an afterthought by the UK government – Boris Johnson previously called the Irish border problem “a millenium bug issue” – O’Neill said that response was “very typical”.

“If they want to leave the EU I wish them the very best, and hope it doesn’t suffer the way it’s predicted. But on the island of Ireland, we don’t want Brexit.”

On whether the party should reconsider its policy of abstentionism, based on the influence Sinn Féin could have had on Brexit legislation in the House of Commons over the past two weeks, O’Neill stood her ground.

“No,” she said. “Brexit will be decided in talks between the British government and EU member states.”

She said that although there is no Stormont Executive in place, the concerns of the people of Northern Ireland in relation to Brexit were still made to Barnier today, and were brought “right in the heart of Europe”.

Mary Lou McDonald Source: Niall Carson via PA Images

When asked whether Sinn Féin members should take their Westminster seats to try to bring about change to abortion laws, gay marriage, or the cash-for-ash scandal, O’Neill said that was the role of a minister of the Executive.

“The North is quickly becoming the backwater of the human rights agenda. But people recognise that we need a minister to bring forward changes to these and other issues.”

May’s visit to the border

Last week, British Prime Minister Theresa May visited the Irish border for the first time since taking up the leadership role.

In a speech given in Belfast, May said that she couldn’t accept the EU’s legislative interpretation of the “regulatory alignment” backstop agreed in December, and that no UK Prime Minister could as it would place a border along the Irish Sea.

The EU responded by asking the UK to put forward its alternative solution. The previous suggestion offered by May was to extend the backstop proposal to the entire United Kingdom, and putting a time limit of two years on it.

This was refused by the EU; it said that the backstop was an exception to preserve the peace process in the North, and that a backstop was futile if it had a time-limit on it.

After Sinn Féin held a meeting with May, McDonald accused the Prime Minister of travelling to the North “to pick a fight with Ireland and the European Union”.

Speaking today, O’Neill echoed Gerry Adams’ comments from last year, and accused May of playing “fast and loose” with the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement.

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