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20th Aug 2022

Ireland's PM in Northern Ireland to tackle Brexit issues

Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, is meeting Northern Irish party leaders on Friday (4 August) to talk about Brexit and the political stalemate in Belfast after a week of political rows with the Democratic Unionist party (DUP).

It will be the first time that the new taoiseach (prime minister) travels to Northern Ireland.

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  • Arlene Foster (DUP) said the Irish PM has not been helpful on Brexit. (Photo: Reuters)

Varadkar, who took office in June, said last week that he would "not design a border for the Brexiteers" between his country and the northern part of the island, which is part of the United Kingdom.

The Dublin government is not convinced by the UK’s plans to use technology to maintain an "invisible" border after the UK leaves the EU’s customs union.

DUP leader Arlene Foster described the comments as "not helpful", and said Dublin should focus on finding a solution. She also accused the Irish taoiseach of “disrespecting" the will of the British people after saying that he hoped Brexit would never happen.

Varadkar said he wanted the UK to stay in the customs union and the single market, so there would be "no need for any border of any consequence”.

“Brexit is a British policy, not an Irish one," he added.

Custom checks

Avoiding a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which could erode the Good Friday peace agreement, is one of the key issues of the Brexit talks between the UK and the EU.

People will probably be able to continue travelling without much hassle, as Ireland and the UK signed an agreement on a Common Travel Area that predates EU membership.

But a frictionless border will be hard to achieve as "physical control and examination if the integrity of both the UK market and the single market is to be protected”, the Centre for European Policy Studies warns in a study.

Efforts by negotiators to come up with innovative solutions to check goods at the new border of the EU’s customs union are led by Sabine Weyand and Olly Robbins, the deputies to EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and UK Brexit minister David Davis.

No significant breakthroughs have been achieved so far in the two rounds of talks.

Negotiators face a tough challenge, as EU standards and rules will have to be applied to all goods coming in from the UK into the customs union, even if there are no duties or tariffs once Britain leaves it.

Sanitary checks and other measures would have to be introduced, for instance on agricultural products, especially if regulatory measures diverge between the UK and the EU.

That means customs checks at the borders.

It could also mean extra travelling time for goods coming from Ireland before they reach other EU countries, when circumventing the UK.

Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney had earlier shrugged off suggestions of using electrical tagging for goods.

"What we do not want to pretend [is that] we can solve the problems of the border on the island of Ireland through technical solutions like cameras and pre-registration and so on. That is not going to work," he said last month.

An Irish parliamentary committee report published on Wednesday (2 August) - on what the Republic of Ireland should seek to have in the EU-UK divorce agreement - suggests giving a "special status" to Northern Ireland.

One idea has been to put the customs border between the two islands, between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and giving Northern Ireland a spacial status.

But that has been strongly opposed by DUP, which rejects any internal border within the UK.

And the Irish report goes even further.

"The Irish government must negotiate for Northern Ireland to be designated with a special status within the EU and for the whole island of Ireland to remain within the EU together,” said the report, which was put together by Fianna Fail senator Mark Daly.

Daly also said the EU and Ireland need to prepare for a united Ireland.

Stalemate at Stormont

The Irish PM will also push Northern Ireland’s main parties, in separate meetings, to come to an agreement over the power-sharing executive in the region.

He has argued that the best way Northern Irish parties could influence Brexit would be to get the Stormont government, Northern Ireland's executive, running in Belfast.

Northern Ireland has been without an executive since January, and the DUP and republican Sinn Fein have been locked in negotiations without result.

Foster accused Sinn Fein of not being interested in breaking the deadlock, as talks are due to resume at the end of August.

In response, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams said his party remains committed to restoring power-sharing at Stormont castle.

The main stumbling block is an Irish language act, which Sinn Fein is demanding and the DUP opposes.

Sinn Fein wants the legislation to be a “standalone" act, meaning it would only concern the rights of Irish speakers and put the Gaelic language on an equal legal footing to English.

Complicating matters further, the DUP has secured a £1 billion (€ 1.1 billion) deal from British prime minister Theresa May in support for May’s minority government in London.

Varadkar on Friday will deliver a keynote speech at Queen's University in Belfast.

But what will grab headlines is the first gay Irish prime minister’s decision to attend a breakfast event, as part of Belfast’s gay pride festival on Saturday morning.

Same-sex marriage is one of the issues dividing Northern Ireland’s main political parties.

Gay, under-40 politican to rule Ireland

Leo Varadkar said his election as leader of the ruling part was an "unlikely story". He assured he would stick to the EU position in the upcoming Brexit negotiations.

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