Ireland’s deputy premier has insisted a crash Brexit is not inevitable.
Simon Coveney said those predicting a defeat for Prime Minister Theresa May when MPs vote on the Withdrawal Agreement next week should not take things for granted.
Mr Coveney said while Ireland would not interfere in the parliamentary process at Westminster, it did want to offer assurances that the contentious border backstop was not what some Brexiteers were “misrepresenting” and “spinning” it as.
The Tanaiste held meetings with a number of business and civic groups in Belfast on Thursday before holding talks with the region’s politicians at Stormont.
Addressing the media between meetings, Mr Coveney was asked whether a no deal looked inevitable, given indications Mrs May will lose the vote on her agreement next week.
“Absolutely not,” he replied.
“First of all, I don’t think we should take anything for granted next week.”
He added: “One of the things that I can say confidentially is there is not a majority of people in Westminster who want to see a no-deal Brexit, in fact there is a majority who want to prevent that from happening.
“What we haven’t seen yet is a majority to support a mechanism that can actually achieve that and, in my view, the only person who actually has a deal that is in place and in writing, that can actually achieve that in a way that solves so many of the complex problems linked to Brexit, is the Prime Minister herself.”
Mr Coveney said EU leaders were happy to offer “clarification, reassurance and definition” around the backstop to help Mrs May get the deal over the line, but he again made clear the substantive terms of the agreement could not be renegotiated.
“If people are concerned about that, yes of course we are happy to look at ways in which we can provide clarification and reassurance and definition in terms of what is meant by that backstop, its temporary nature, and the fact it is only a fall-back, insurance mechanism in the first place anyway, that we hope to never use.
“I mean, are we really suggesting that this whole deal is going to be pulled down because of something that may never be used in the first place and even if it is, will only be used on a temporary basis?
“Is that what people are actually advocating for?”
Mr Coveney has been critical of Brexiteers who have claimed the backstop would undermine the constitutional sovereignty of the UK and bring a united Ireland a step closer by creating barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
“This isn’t a threat to anybody, the Irish government certainly doesn’t have any ulterior motives here, apart from to try to protect the status quo on this island, the peace process on this island, the fact that we have a border but it’s a border that’s largely invisible when it comes to trade and movement of goods,” he said.
Mr Coveney acknowledged that some unionists had “genuine” concerns about the backstop.
But he said he found those concerns usually subsided when the facts around it were laid out.
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.
“I don’t believe there is a sting in the backstop at all,” said the Tanaiste.
“I think that some people have created the impression that there is and somehow some ulterior motive that is going to weaken Northern Ireland as part of the UK in the future, I don’t accept that premise in the first place. That’s not what’s in the text of the Withdrawal Agreement if people read it.”
The Irish government has also rejected any suggestion that a future Stormont executive could veto aspects of the backstop.
Mr Coveney echoed remarks by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on Wednesday when he expressed concern about a UK Government proposal that, if the backstop came into operation, would mean the devolved legislature in Belfast would have to agree to any subsequent changes to EU laws impacting on it.
After the meeting with Mr Coveney, which the party described as “very frank”, DUP leader Arlene Foster urged the Irish government to think again on the backstop.
“The Withdrawal Agreement is not a fair deal and we cannot support it,” she said.
“It should be no more acceptable to build a new east-west border than it is to build a new north-south border.
“The backstop is not needed. No-one is going to build a hard border. We will work with the 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.”
But Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill urged 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,” she said.
“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.
At the end of his day of engagements, Mr Coveney said it was clear people in Northern Ireland were concerned about a no deal.
He said his meeting with the DUP was “open and robust”.
“But it was respectful and I think the DUP wanted to outline their position in relation to their concerns at the current deal that is on offer and I think I outlined in very clear terms why the Irish government supports the deal,” Mr Coveney said.
The Tanaiste added: “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.”