Monday 21 October 2019

Coveney reveals his plan for invisible Border with North

Special deal would keep a link with the customs union

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

Colm Kelpie

Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has 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, 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.

That could see the North retaining a link to the customs union, he said - adding that Michel Barnier, Europe's chief Brexit negotiator, is on board.

A scenario that would see a customs barrier, even an "e-border" using technology, would be a non-runner, the minister added.

"We're not going to stand for that," he added. "If we get to that point, we're not where we want to be.

"Ireland's staying in the customs union. So if we're going to avoid a hard Border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, there needs to be some relationship with the customs union and common market that allows Northern Ireland to be able to operate the way that it does today," the minister told this newspaper.

He said that if we think in terms of Northern Ireland being simply in or out of the customs union or single market, then it's "almost impossible to see a solution".

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"That's why in the terms of reference for the EU negotiating team, they talk about imaginative and flexible solutions being required, and they will be. We will need to think differently in terms of how Northern Ireland relates to and interacts to the common market."

Those solutions need to be devised without threatening the integrity of the UK, or the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, he added. The plan, therefore, entails Northern Ireland leaving the European Union with the rest of the UK.

Mr Coveney said the European negotiating team would have to insist on solutions that "don't have any precedent", to maintain the current relationship on the island.

"To change that risks the Good Friday Agreement and risks increased tension in the context of a peace process. And it would set us back. This is a fundamental issue for the Irish Government, and for me, and for Michel Barnier," the minister said.

Mr Coveney accepted that if Northern Ireland was able to retain a link to the customs union, and the rest of Britain was outside of it, then there would still be a requirement for a border somewhere. 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.

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I can understand why many people would have a concern that shifting a border to the Irish Sea, and creating a potential trade barrier between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain, that is something that is very sensitive, and understandably so.

"It's complicated. Two things need to happen. You need to protect the integrity of the single market. And then if you're going to do that, how do you square the relationships between Northern Ireland and Britain?"

In terms of the unionist response, Mr Coveney said he took heart from comments by Jeffrey Donaldson talking about the need for a seamless Border.

At an event earlier, Mr Coveney said he was seeking "special status" for the North, language also used by Sinn Féin and the SDLP. But he later clarified he meant "unique status", claiming special status potentially creates precedents in other parts of Europe.

Irish Independent

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