Northern Ireland leaders give cautious welcome to Brexit deal

Political leaders in Northern Ireland have given a cautious welcome to a deal being agreed in the Brexit negotiations.

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood welcomed reports that the UK and EU had agreed a text on the border in Ireland, but he said any agreement must include a backstop.

Mr Eastwood said: “The SDLP are glad to hear that an agreement might have been reached and we look forward to reading the text of that agreement in detail.

“If the agreement involves a backstop that protects Ireland from a hard border then we would hope it will gain support in Westminster.”

Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann said there must not be any “ambiguity” about Northern Ireland’s place in a post-Brexit UK.

Mr Swann said the next 24 to 48 hours in the negotiations would set “the direction of travel for Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom for decades to come”.

“The bottom line for the Prime Minister, the Conservative Government and their partners in the DUP must be the achievement of a sensible deal which respects the result of the referendum and maintains the integrity of the United Kingdom,” he said.

“There must be no ambiguity, constructive or otherwise, in any deal about Northern Ireland’s place within the Union in a post-Brexit UK.

“To do otherwise would be a serious blow against the Belfast Agreement and the principle of consent and will set a dangerous precedent for the future.”

Alliance Deputy Leader Stephen Farry described reports of an agreement as “encouraging” but he expressed “caution” on a number of grounds ahead of any publication of an agreed text.

“An open-ended backstop in place until or unless it is superseded is critical to protect the Good Friday Agreement and to avoid a hard border in Ireland,” Mr Farry said.

He added that it was important people were “measured” in their reaction to the backstop and do not contribute further to “unnecessary dramatising of something that should be seen in pragmatic terms”.

“Ultimately, the backstop is only an insurance approach to Brexit,” he said.

“There is no such thing as a good or sensible Brexit.”

A crunch Cabinet meeting will take place on Wednesday to discuss the deal reached by negotiators in Brussels on Tuesday.

UK Cabinet ministers were invited to read the papers relating to the draft deal on Tuesday night ahead of the special meeting of Prime Minister Theresa May’s senior team “to decide on next steps”.