Friday 15 November 2019

Bertie Ahern says there is no possibility of Ireland leaving the EU: 'We're mad, but we're not that mad'

Bertie Ahern
Bertie Ahern
Simon Coveney, at the Department of Foreign Affairs in Iveagh House on St Stephen’s Green. Photo: Arthur Carron

Cormac McQuinn, Colm Kelpie & PA reporters

FORMER Taoiseach Bertie Ahern has said that “no realistic solution” has been put forward in relation to the border with Northern Ireland and that “pigs will fly” if Brexit negotiations are wrapped up before Britain is due to leave the EU.

Mr Ahern also said there’s no prospect of Ireland leaving the EU saying: “we’re mad but we’re not that mad”.

Unionists have expressed outrage at the suggestion that any customs checks after Brexit would happen at ports and airports between the two islands.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney are unconvinced by the UK's plans to use technology to maintain the soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Their preferred option is for customs and immigration checks to be located away from the land border and at ports and airports instead, as reported first in the Irish Independent.

British chancellor Philip Hammond this morning said all sides share an ambition not to reinstate a hard border within Ireland.

British Prime Minister Theresa May greets DUP leader Arlene Foster outside 10 Downing Street in London Photo: PA
British Prime Minister Theresa May greets DUP leader Arlene Foster outside 10 Downing Street in London Photo: PA

He said: “That’s a very high priority to us because the peace process in Ireland is extremely important to us.

“But the answer to how to deliver that cannot be to create a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.”

Speaking on Sky News, Mr Ahern said he agreed with Mr Hammond in relation to the desire for a seamless border.

“We want it like its been now for the last decade or so where there’s free movement, where there’s no security checks, there’s no watch towers, there’s no technology, examinations of what’s going back and forward and that’s the way everybody on the island of Ireland wants it.

“The difficulty is as I’ve said time out of number – the experts in this area say that’s impossible.”

He said the expert advice is that there must be customs checks on the border if it’s to become the frontier between the UK and the EU.

“There is no realistic solution that has been put forward yet.

“And I really worry that some of the suggestions that have been put out in the last year – from European sources too.

“Have they looked at the constitutional position, have they looked at the sheer difficulty of the simplistic thing of saying we want no border and we can do that but it’s still the land border between the UK and Europe .

“I really worry that the issue has not been examined to the extent that it requires looking at the legal and constitutional issues and the trade issues, the ramifications.

Read more: Coveney reveals his plan for invisible Border with North

“This is one of my criticisms that a year gone by very little has happened on it and I really think we should have been trying to get a hard position negotiated between the Irish government and the UK government and put that position to Europe over the last 12 months.

“That as far as I can see has not happened. I think that was a mistake on all sides and we now need to rectify it.”

Mr Ahern said that the issue should be fast-tracked during the summer.

Meanwhile he also said that there will have to be a transition phase for Britain leaving the EU.

“There is no possibility of this all being wrapped up in a two-year period. Effectively when people come back from holidays in September you’re talking about the entire agreement was meant to be finished before it goes to the ratification process by October of next year.

“Now definitely pigs will fly if that happens. It’s not going to happen. There’ll have to be a transition period, two, three, four years.”

He said that trade deals all over the world take between five and seven years.

“So if everyone even works as hard as they’re committed to doing – and I accept that they are – to try and do it in two years… There’s no possibility of it being wrapped up in my view and I think everybody else who’s looked at this in a serious way – of it being wrapped up by 2019.”

Meanwhile, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) allies of British Prime Minister Theresa May insist a suggestion from foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney that the Irish Sea effectively become the border with the UK after Brexit should be dismissed out of hand

Mr Coveney and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar are unconvinced by the UK's plans to use technology to maintain the soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic - which will become the frontier with the European Union after Brexit.

Their preferred option is for customs and immigration checks to be located away from the land border and at ports and airports instead, as reported first in the Irish Independent.

But such a move would be unacceptable to the DUP, which the British Prime Minister relies on to prop up her minority administration in the House of Commons.

DUP chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said today: "There is no way that the DUP would go for an option that creates a border between one part of the United Kingdom and the other."

He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Dublin really needs to understand that that proposition is absurd and unconstitutional."

Mr Coveney set out his post-Brexit vision for an invisible Border with Northern Ireland retaining a connection to the customs union in an interview with the Irish Independent last month.

Mr Coveney said the Government will be pushing for a special deal, with "unique status" for the North to ensure the Border remains as close as possible to the current arrangement.

Asked if this meant it would have to be in the Irish Sea, between the island and Britain, Mr Coveney said: "Not necessarily. We need to talk about whether or not the checks that are necessary can be facilitated a different way, whether that's in airports or ports, and Ireland and the UK working together to facilitate that."

DUP MP Ian Paisley said Dublin's position appeared to leave two alternatives - a "very hard border" or that "Ireland will wise up and leave the EU" itself.

The border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is one of the key issues that needs to be resolved by the UK and the EU before talks begin on a new trade deal.

British ministers had proposed using measures such as surveillance cameras to allow free movement between the north and south of the island.

Mr Varadkar thinks these plans could jeopardise the peace process in Ireland and restrict movement between the two countries.

He is said to want customs and immigration checks moved away from the land border to ports and airports - effectively drawing a new border in the Irish Sea.

Brexit Secretary David Davis has acknowledged that "flexible and imaginative solutions" will be needed to resolve issues around Northern Ireland although he has previously told MPs when asked about an Irish Sea border that "I don't see that would be the solution, to be honest".

Additional reporting from PA

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