Stormont’s First Minister has denied claims that a letter she jointly penned to the Prime Minister outlining a series of Brexit concerns represented a U-turn on her support for the UK leaving the EU.
Democratic Unionist leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness wrote to Theresa May highlighting a number of issues that could negatively impact on Northern Ireland.
The content and tone of the letter have prompted claims from political rivals that Mrs Foster has backtracked on her pre-referendum support for Brexit.
Mrs Foster rejected the suggestion, saying: “Brexit means Brexit and our Prime Minister is very clear about that and I support her in that.
“That doesn’t mean to say we close our eyes to some of the immediate challenges that are there. We have set out those challenges and now we move forward in a positive way.”
While the UK as a whole voted to leave the EU in June’s historic referendum, in Northern Ireland 56% backed Remain.
Of the five main parties in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein, the SDLP, the Ulster Unionists and the Alliance Party all campaigned for Remain while the DUP, the region’s largest party, backed Brexit.
Mrs Foster and Mr McGuinness’s joint letter to Mrs May stressed that Brexit could not be allowed to compromise cross-border efforts to tackle organised crime and those opposed to the peace process.
The ministers also said it was critical to the economy that businesses retained their competitiveness and did not incur additional costs. It highlighted the need to retain access to sources of skilled and unskilled labour in the EU.
The vulnerability of an agri-food sector reliant on EU subsidies was also raised, as were concerns that a proportion of billions of euro of EU funds for projects in Northern Ireland may not be drawn down due to the exit.
Mrs Foster said Brexit would open up great opportunities for Northern Ireland but it was right for her to highlight issues of concern.
She told BBC Radio Ulster: “It would be negligent of me not to point out where I believe the challenges are, because we are going into the all-important negotiation with our national government (with the EU).”
She added: “We are extracting ourselves from the European Union and it is right we identify where those challenges lie, but I fundamentally believe there are huge opportunities.”
Ulster Unionist economy spokesman Steve Aiken said: “Given the content of the letter, I would question whether this is a DUP U-turn on their position on the referendum after the vote has taken place.”
Jim Allister, leader of the Eurosceptic Traditional Unionist Voice party, said: “This letter illustrates an overriding desire by the DUP to pander to the Sinn Fein position of seeking to row back on the decision of our nation to leave the EU.
“The tone and content of this letter is so strongly pro-EU that it is hard to imagine it is co-authored by a party that campaigned for Brexit.”