Sunday 30 April 2017

Stormont crisis will 'put us on back foot' on Brexit

The row involving the North’s First Minister Arlene Foster – and her role in the so-called ‘cash-for-ash’ scandal – has brought the Northern Executive to the brink. Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
The row involving the North’s First Minister Arlene Foster – and her role in the so-called ‘cash-for-ash’ scandal – has brought the Northern Executive to the brink. Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Niall O'Connor and Philip Ryan

There is growing alarm within the Cabinet that the political chaos in Northern Ireland will scupper the prospect of a 'soft Brexit', the Irish Independent has learned.

As Stormont remained gripped by crisis last night, ministers in Dublin feared the instability would hamper attempts to secure the best possible deal for Ireland.

Sources at both Cabinet and official level warned that fresh elections in the North could lead to a prolonged period in which control is transferred back to Westminster.

Such a scenario would damage efforts to prevent a so-called 'hard Brexit', sources revealed.

"The last thing we now need is confusion spreading to the UK and across Europe about what Ireland is looking for," said one senior figure directly involved in devising Ireland's Brexit plans.

The row involving the North's First Minister Arlene Foster - and her role in the so-called 'cash-for-ash' scandal - has brought the Northern Executive to the brink.

Central to Ireland's objectives ahead of the post-Brexit negotiations is ensuring there is no return to a hard Border, the Common Travel Area remains in place, and that the Peace Process is respected.

But ministers fear that if there is no government in the North, Ireland's hand in the talks will be weakened.

"All of a sudden, we could be put on the back foot in terms of securing the best possible deal for Ireland," one Cabinet source told the Irish Independent.

Senior ministers are in constant contact with their counterparts in the North as the crunch Brexit negotiations edge closer.

It's understood Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan has been briefed on the situation since the crisis escalated this week.

Last night, Mr Flanagan said it was important the institutions in the North continued to function.

"While the Renewable Heat Incentive issue is entirely a matter for the devolved Executive and Assembly, it is clearly important that the political institutions continue to function as provided for by the Good Friday Agreement," Mr Flanagan said.

"As a co-guarantor of that Agreement, the Irish Government is firmly committed to the effective operation of all of the institutions and that commitment remains constant."

The Cabinet minister reiterated his call for UK Prime Minister Theresa May and her government to outline their Brexit strategy as soon as possible.

"The Government is continuing to ready itself to meet the Brexit challenge. Our intensive planning continues at both political and official levels, and we are in constant dialogue with our EU partners," Mr Flanagan said.

Meanwhile, European Affairs Minister Dara Murphy last night said any efforts must be taken to avoid instability in the North.

"The vast majority of the areas of concern are shared between the people of North and South," Mr Murphy said.

"It is in everybody's interests for there to be as much stability as possible given that there are so many shared interests."

Mr Murphy pointed out that there is a lot of "good will" from other European countries towards the people of Ireland, both North and South.

However, Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin said the situation in the North - coupled with the departure of Britain's ambassador to the EU Ivan Rogers - is "profoundly worrying" for Ireland.

He said that there needs to reassurance given from senior Government figures, including Taoiseach Enda Kenny.

"It is profoundly worrying that in the context of [Brexit] talks starting in the next 12 weeks that will change the future relationship between Britain and Ireland," Mr Howlin told the Irish Independent.

Mr Howlin said without a stable government in the North, there is now the risk of there being "no prospect of the voice of Northern Ireland being heard in the way it has to be".

Irish Independent

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