Coveney talks up possibility of PM getting approval for Brexit deal

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.

Tanaiste Simon Coveney meets DUP leader Arlene Foster at Stormont. ''Photograph: Declan Roughan

Tanaiste Simon Coveney meets DUP leader Arlene Foster at Stormont. ''Photograph: Declan Roughan

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”.

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 confidently 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.”

After the meeting with Mr Coveney, 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.”

Mrs Foster added: “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.”

Mr Coveney said EU leaders were happy to offer “clarification” around the backstop to help the prime minister get the deal over the line, but he has 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...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.”

Sinn Fein vice-president Michelle O’Neill has urged the Irish government and other EU states to “hold firm” on retaining 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.