British PM faces Brexit confrontation in Belfast
British PM faces Brexit confrontation in Belfast


British Prime Minister Theresa May will receive a very clear message that the north of Ireland wants to stay in the European Union before she triggers Brexit on Wednesday, Sinn Fein has said.

Mrs May is expected in Ireland later this week ahead of formally starting the process of taking Britain -- as well as the north of Ireland and Gibraltar -- out of the EU.

Sinn Fein’s leader in the Six Counties, Michelle O’Neill, said she intends to meet the British Prime Minister to directly voice her strong opposition. The visit will coincide with the expected round of talks to form a new powersharing executive for the north of Ireland.

The Six Counties and Scotland voted to remain in the EU in last year’s referendum, but will be taken out by against their will by the process to be initiated by May on Wednesday.

A Sinn Fein call for the region to retain special EU-designated status has so far been rejected by the British government, which says it is aiming for new controls at the border between north and south to be ‘frictionless’. Border controls have traditionally served as targets for bomb and rocket attack by the IRA, and the issue will complicate ongoing discussions in the political process.

“The British government are acting against the interest and the expressed wishes of a cross-community group of people here that want to stay in Europe,” said Ms O’Neill.

Sinn Fein deputy president Mary Lou McDonald said there was an obligation on the 26 County Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, to represent the interests of the entire island and to make clear to May that the wishes of the electorate north of the border had to be respected.

“This business of dividing Ireland north and south is over,” she said. “We now all hang together or we will surely hang separately. All of our interests are absolutely intertwined, we will be relying on each other to stand up for each other and to protect each other and, in a very special and particular way, that places a big, big obligation on the Taoiseach.”

Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams called on the Dublin government to act vigorously to secure special status for the north.

“That is the consensus of the majority of parties north and south,” he said. “If the British government succeeds in its plans, it will drive part of Ireland out of the European Union - that is not acceptable.”

The 27 other European Union countries will meet in coming months to draft its position on “setting out the arrangements” for Britain’s withdrawal. Negotiations will then begin between London and the EU, who have said any deal must be finalised by October 2018.

The rights of Irish citizens living in Britain or north of the border are expected to be resolved in the negotiations. Despite commitments by both London and Dublin to maintaining the Common Travel Area between Ireland and Britain, free movement of people and goods across the border and/or between the islands could be affected.

One of the main issues is that the EU is seeking a 60 billion euro “exit bill” from Britain, some of which could also be demanded in turn by the London exchequer from the devolved administrations in Belfast and Edinburgh.

The leader of the moderate unionist Alliance party in the North, Naomi Long, believes a “botched Brexit” will increase support for a united Ireland.

“Our needs are very different from the south-east of England yet what I think what we are having is a Brexit tailored around the demands and needs of the conservative south-east, which is not paying heed to the needs and demands of Northern Ireland,” she said.

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