Sinn Féin ducks crucial vote on hard Border in UK parliament
Flanagan urges party to end Westminster abstention in bid to swing customs union deal
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan has urged Sinn Féin to take its six MP seats at the Westminster parliament ahead of expected moves to try to keep the UK in an EU customs union after Brexit.
British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will today unveil a policy shift and observers in London believe up to 20 Conservative pro-EU MPs could back the initiative. Such a change could obviate the need for a return of Border controls after the EU-UK split next year.
But any vote on the issue would be very tight and Sinn Féin's six Westminster MPs, who currently abstain, could swing it. Such a possibility was discussed at a meeting of the British "Brexit war cabinet" at Prime Minister Theresa May's country residence at Chequers last Thursday.
Mr Flanagan said Sinn Féin's long-standing abstention from Westminster was long established and well understood.
But he argued the Labour policy shift offered a possibility to resolve the Border issue and lead to "a softer Brexit".
"The Labour initiative may put the focus on an extremely tight head-count in the British House of Commons. With the DUP now propping up a fragile Conservative government, the absence of a nationalist voice there is increasingly evident and it may be an appropriate time for Sinn Féin to reconsider abstention," Mr Flanagan said.
But Sinn Féin rejected the call out of hand. "This is not even up for discussion. Our electoral mandate was for abstention as it has been since this party was formed," a senior official said.
The Brexit process will gather pace this week. Mr Corbyn is expected to unveil his well-trailed policy shift today.
Tomorrow Mrs May will seek cabinet clearance for her government's next phase negotiating stance. This will be announced in detail in a speech by Mrs May on Friday.
In Brussels on Wednesday the EU Commission will sign off on a draft EU-UK divorce treaty known as the 'Withdrawal Agreement'.
As talks gain pace again the next phase is set to be completed by an EU leaders' summit on March 22 and 23.
The agreement will put into legal terms the draft deal agreed on December 8 last - including the management of the Border, and other issues such as the EU-UK divorce bill and overseas citizens' rights after Brexit.
The final phase of the talks after March will sketch out a framework on a future EU-UK relationship. But this cannot happen unless there is agreement on the legal terms in the coming weeks.
Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney is in Brussels today for Brexit talks and will meet EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
Mr Coveney's spokesman said there will be "no slippage" in giving legal effect to the Border deal, despite speculation on this issue and efforts to distract from the core agenda.
He added that Ireland also wants the closest possible EU-UK relationship after Brexit happens.
The minister insisted Ireland's Border deal will be honoured. "We are fully satisfied that Ireland's concerns will be effectively addressed.
"All of this will be seen over the coming days," the minister's spokesman said.