Monday 23 April 2018

'Absolutely unacceptable' - Mary Lou McDonald slams 'procrastinating' UK government over border issue

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire

As talks in Brussels turned again to the thorny issue of the Irish border, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald insisted it needed to be resolved by June at the latest.

She accused the UK government of "bluster and procrastination" on the issue and said concrete proposals on how it intended to avoid a hard border were needed.

"The reality is we should at this stage have seen some concrete proposal from the British government," she said.

"The idea of pushing this out to October is absolutely unacceptable."

Mrs McDonald, who held a number of public engagement meetings in Belfast on Monday, had a blunt message for the UK government.

"They need to understand that further delay is not acceptable, they need to show us the colour of their money, they need to put forward a concrete proposition and proposal as to how Ireland is protected, how the north of Ireland is protected, how our peace agreements are protected, how our economy is protected."

Conservative former cabinet minister Ken Clarke urged the Government to ignore "nationalist nonsense" over the decision to choose a Franco-Dutch firm to make post-Brexit blue British passports.

Speaking as MPs considered an urgent question on the issue, Mr Clarke told the Commons: "De La Rue is a very successful British company which wins fair, international, tendered contracts and earns a great deal of money for this country printing other people's currencies and official documents.

"When we negotiate trade agreements, we will be pressing other countries to open up their public procurement processes to genuine, fair, international competition.

"And it'd be totally ridiculous to abandon that principle now in order to give in to constituency pressures, which I understand, and otherwise nationalist nonsense which ought to be ignored."

De La Rue is the current provider although the Government claims it will save £120 million during the lifetime of the 11-and-a-half year contract likely to be awarded to Gemalto, which has its headquarters in Amsterdam and is listed on the French and Dutch stock exchanges.

Conservative former cabinet minister Ken Clarke urged the Government to ignore "nationalist nonsense" over the decision to choose a Franco-Dutch firm to make post-Brexit blue British passports.

Speaking as MPs considered an urgent question on the issue, Mr Clarke told the Commons: "De La Rue is a very successful British company which wins fair, international, tendered contracts and earns a great deal of money for this country printing other people's currencies and official documents.

"When we negotiate trade agreements, we will be pressing other countries to open up their public procurement processes to genuine, fair, international competition.

"And it'd be totally ridiculous to abandon that principle now in order to give in to constituency pressures, which I understand, and otherwise nationalist nonsense which ought to be ignored."

De La Rue is the current provider although the Government claims it will save £120 million during the lifetime of the 11-and-a-half year contract likely to be awarded to Gemalto, which has its headquarters in Amsterdam and is listed on the French and Dutch stock exchanges.

Home Office minister Caroline Nokes said Mr Clarke was "absolutely right" to highlight the UK's desire to be a "global, outward-looking trading nation", adding: "The reality is in a fair procurement process we had to look at quality, security and indeed price - and this was the contract that provided the best value on all counts."

Labour's Liz Twist, who asked the urgent question given that her Blaydon constituency is home to De La Rue, asked about the security implications of a non-UK company making British passports.

She also asked: "Why was it felt appropriate for the Prime Minister to open the new headquarters of Thales - the French security and defence company which has recently taken over Gemalto, one of the bidders for the passport contract - during the time of the procurement process?

"The Government must provide clarity as to whether the bid was discussed at all during the visit."

Ms Twist said she understood De La Rue's bid was "significantly less than the previous price and they operate a gain share agreement where excessive profits are returned to the Home Office".

She also said: "The best value is about more than money, it's about having a secure passport system which works for the UK and which is reliable."

Tory Peter Bone (Wellingborough) claimed French people would "rise up and want to leave the EU" when they see the blue passports.

He said: "The EU leadership group are in turmoil. They are worried about the British passport being made in France because when the French people see this symbol of freedom and independence and realise the British people are gaining control of their borders, money and laws they will rise up and want to leave the EU."

Shadow home secretary Diane Abbott said the Government could not be "allowed to hide behind EU procurement rules" and said they must "take responsibility for the potential fallout this may have on workers, their families, the community and their wider industrial strategy".

Prime Minister Theresa May has paid tribute to Brexit Secretary David Davis and the UK's negotiating team after they reached agreement with the EU on a transition deal.

Mrs May, giving an update to the Commons, said: "It is not in our national interest to ask businesses to undertake two sets of changes.

"So it follows that during the implementation period they should continue to trade on current terms.

"Whilst I recognise that not everyone will welcome the continuation of current trading terms for another 21 months, such an implementation period has been widely welcomed by British business because it is necessary if we are to minimise uncertainty and deliver a smooth and successful Brexit."

She added that there were still "key questions" to be resolved around the Irish border issue, saying: "I have explained that the specific European Commission proposals for that backstop were unacceptable because they were not in line with the Belfast Agreement and threatened the break-up of the UK's internal market."

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn welcomed the international consensus built by the Prime Minister, saying the most powerful response to Russia was multilateral action.

But he said insecurity for families and businesses as well as confusion at the heart of Government had dogged the first phase of Brexit negotiations.

"The Government wasted months and months dithering and posturing before accepting the inevitable," he said.

"This is the consistent pattern of these Brexit talks. Wild claims and red lines quickly become climb-downs and broken promises."

Mr Corbyn also criticised the Prime Minister over the controversial UK passports contract, saying: "It seems her red, white and blue Brexit has become the blue, white and red of the flag of France.

"Time after time, the Tories sell off British assets and jobs to the lowest bidder."

Mrs May could be seen laughing when Mr Corbyn said an implementation period had first been mooted by Labour, while she also attacked his initial call to trigger Article 50 immediately after the referendum.

She added: "It's the right honourable gentleman who when the shadow home secretary backed a rerun of the referendum, kept her in her job, when the then shadow Northern Ireland secretary backed a rerun of the referendum, he was sacked."

Mrs May later insisted continued UK involvement in the Galileo programme is in the EU's interests.

Hilary Benn, Labour chairman of the Exiting the European Union Committee, asked: "Can the Prime Minister clarify whether the attempts that the EU Commission is apparently making to freeze British companies out of Galileo contracts that are due to be issued in June is consistent with the transitional arrangements or not?

"And if not, what does she propose to do about it?"

Mrs May said the UK has been clear that it will meet its obligations as an EU member for as long as it remains within the bloc and that the UK should "continue to be treated as a full member of the European Union".

She went on: "As the Business Secretary has said, the UK does have a world-leading space sector and that has contributed a significant amount of specialist expertise to the Galileo programme.

"So we believe it is not just a question of what is in the UK's interests for us to continue to be able to participate as we have done in that programme, we think it's actually in the interests of the European Union as well because of the expertise the United Kingdom can provide."

Press Association

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