Labour appoints new shadow Direct Ruler in Brexit row

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The spokesperson on Ireland for the British Labour Party, Owen Smith, was dramatically sacked by party leader Jeremy Corbyn on Friday night in a row over the party’s position on Britain’s departure from the European Union.

Mr Smith (pictured, right) said he was removed as the shadow Direct Ruler for his views on the damage Brexit will do to the British economy and the Good Friday Agreement. He was asked to stand down after he wrote an article calling for a second referendum on the terms of Brexit.

Smith has been replaced by Rochdale MP and shadow housing minister Tony Lloyd (pictured, left), an MP from Manchester who has been elected as mayor and police commissioner for the city. Mr Corbyn said Lloyd was highly experienced and committed to “ensuring that peace in Northern Ireland is maintained” and to bringing devolution “back on track”.

In the newspaper article Mr Smith, who unsuccessfully challenged Mr Corbyn for the party leadership in 2016, insisted Labour needed to do more than “just back a soft Brexit or guarantee a soft border in Ireland”.

He said leaving the EU was “the biggest economic crisis that our country will have faced for many, many generations” and he believed Labour should stand against it.

His sacking comes amid rising tension over the terms of Brexit. EU leaders this week reached another interim deal with British officials on a transition period after Britain’s exit from the bloc, but major differences are said to remain over the north of Ireland.

The Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said a ‘backstop’ agreement to avoid a hard border in Ireland has to be part of the withdrawal agreement between the EU and London. He is currently taking part in a two-day summit with other EU leaders, with Brexit negotiations a major part of the agenda.

The ‘backstop’ refers to a “common regulatory area” to be established in the Six Counties following Brexit if no other solutions to the border issue can be found.

A December draft version of the agreement was rejected by Theresa May in February as unacceptable, but the British Prime Minister has since told EU leaders that she remains committed to it, allowing negotiations to move on to trade issues.

Arriving in Brussels, Leo Varadkar welcomed that May had renewed her commitment ahead of the October deadline for a final deal.

He observed: “I very much welcome the fact that a protocol that had been ruled out a few weeks... that the British government now accepts that there has to be a ‘backstop’ in the withdrawal agreement.

“Everyone does share the objective - Ireland, the EU and the United Kingdom - to avoid a hard border. It’s now accepted that a backstop has to be in the withdrawal agreement... but we’ve always said that we’re willing to examine alternative solutions, particularly solutions that would bring the UK closer to the EU.”

Speculation has been increasing that negotiations are leaning towards keeping Britain within the European Single Market, although still outside the Customs Union and the European Court of Justice. Negotiating guidelines agreed by the EU in Mrs May’s absence in Brussels also include a Spanish veto over Gibraltar, the British-ruled peninsula in the south of Spain.

Separately, a former British deputy prime minister has warned that even a soft Border through Ireland, post-Brexit, would only be temporary before the region is eventually patrolled by armed guards.

Top Tory Michael Heseltine predicted Brexit negotiations would lead to a ‘soft’ border on the island, without obvious security installations. However, he warned that an “incident” at such a border would be inevitable and this would lead to guards there being armed.

“Borders need to be policed and I know the only way you can police borders in modern society is with armed policemen,” he said. “I think that would be a tragedy beyond price for Ireland and the United Kingdom, yet the issue is being ducked, avoided, put off.”

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