Nationalist plea to Varadkar '˜could have come straight from Sinn Fein'

Unionists say a letter from 200 nationalists to the Irish prime minister which brands Brexit 'offensive and unacceptable' tries to subvert UK democracy and undermines the Good Friday Agreement principle of unionist consent.

Lawyer John Finucane was among the letter's signatories
Lawyer John Finucane was among the letter's signatories

Among the names from the world of sport, the arts, business, community work and the legal sector are Republic of Ireland footballer James McClean and Queen’s University Professor Phil Scraton who campaigned to expose the Hillsborough disaster.

Other signatories include former All-Ireland-winning Tyrone GAA captain Peter Canavan and boxers Paddy Barnes and Michael Conlon.

Prominent lawyers who signed the open letter include Peter Madden, John Finucane and Kevin Winters.

The latest debate came after UK Brexit Secretary David Davis said on Sunday that last week’s UK-EU agreement on the Irish border was not legally binding unless the two sides reached a final deal.

The move prompted a heated response from the Irish government, after which Mr Davis claimed that his words had been twisted and that the deal would be honoured whatever happened.

But at the local level, heated debate continued.

“The impending reality of Brexit now threatens to reinforce partition on this island and revisit a sense of abandonment as experienced by our parents and grandparents,” the letter to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said.

“The fact that a majority of voters in the north of Ireland voted to remain within the EU must not be ignored.

“Against the stated will of a majority of voters in the north, and notwithstanding recent announcements, Brexit pushes us all into uncharted territory, with huge uncertainty for business and the economy, and continuing doubts about what this will mean in reality for Irish and European citizens living in this region.

“We, our children and grandchildren should not be forced out of the EU against our democratic will.

“All of this is offensive and unacceptable to us and many others.”

But DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson said the signatories fail to recognise that Northern Ireland is part of the UK which voted to leave the EU.

“They have addressed a letter complaining about the UK’s exit from Europe, but addressed it to someone who, only a few days ago, signed up to an agreement on how the UK will leave the EU,” he said.

“It may be no surprise that signatories feel abandoned, however that has come about because the main party representing the nationalist community has left them voiceless at Westminster.”

UUP leader Robin Swann MLA felt that rather than taking a nationalist line on the issues, the letter took a “hard-line republican” approach.

“This letter is more about attempting to put pressure on the Irish government to follow a hard-line republican agenda rather than address genuine concerns over Brexit, and it should be viewed in that context,” he said.

“It could be perceived as a call to reinstate articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution. Hopefully Leo Varadkar will put that to bed. The language and tone of the letter could be mistaken for coming straight out of the Sinn Fein press office.”

TUV leader Jim Allister said the signatories denounced the “partisan” position of the UK and its prime minister and yet at the same time demanded the Irish prime minister act on their behalf to subvert the UK’s referendum.

“Such hypocrisy and doublethink totally undermines their position,” he said, adding: “The UK joined the EU as one nation and must leave as one nation.

“It is also clear from the tone and content of the letter that for all their veneration of the Belfast Agreement they clearly do not honour its supposed core principle of consent to Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, from which flows our exiting of the EU as part of the British nation.”

Former UUP leader Lord Empey said he understood that many people in Northern Ireland are unhappy with Brexit, but that it was “a UK-wide referendum and the result was to leave the EU”.

Speaking as a negotiator of the Good Friday Agreement, he said many people were claiming that Brexit threatened the deal he helped to settle.

However, he insisted this was not the case and that a legal challenge on this basis was dismissed by the Supreme Court earlier this year.

“Furthermore, no mention is made [in the letter] of the massive financial commitment made to Northern Ireland each year by Westminster, without which we could not function. While of course Dublin has a role in all of this, due to the North-South Institutions, they are not ‘co-equal’ with London.”

Former Irish rugby international and reconciliation campaigner Trevor Ringland was also critical.

“The signatories seem to have abandoned power-sharing and now seem to be working to orchestrate a crisis where none actually exists,” he said.