Brexit: North can operate under different rules to UK – Coveney

Divergence already exists in several areas, Tánaiste tells MacGill Summer School

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, in Brussels. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, in Brussels. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

 

There is no reason Northern Ireland cannot be treated differently from the rest of the UK after Brexit, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said.

The North is already governed in a different manner to England, Wales and Scotland in a number of important areas such as planning and local government, Mr Coveney said.

The status of the North after the UK leaves the European Union in March 2019 continues to be one of the main sticking points between UK and EU negotiators.

Ireland and the EU say there should be no hard border with the South and that the North should remain to some extent within the customs union, essentially moving the customs border to the Irish Sea.

Speaking at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Co Donegal, Mr Coveney said the constitutional status of the North, as a full part of the UK, would not be changed by Brexit.

“We are rock solid behind that absolute principle – and I am on the record as saying that calls for a Border poll in Ireland are premature and unwise in the context of what we are trying to disentangle and negotiate here with Brexit.

“But, at the same time, the argument that Northern Ireland cannot be treated any differently from any other part of the UK simply falls short.”

Mr Coveney pointed to the “unique architecture” of the Belfast Agreement as an example of the unique governing system in Northern Ireland.

He said local councils in Northern Ireland had difference powers to ones in England. Other issues, such as animal health and regulation of lakes and waterways, are also handled differently in the North – they are governed on an all-Ireland basis.

“None of this makes unionists in Northern Ireland less British or the union with the United Kingdom less strong. None of this has constitutional implications.”

He said that if the UK did not like the current Border proposals they were free to make their own, “as long as it meets its own commitments of December and March, and helps us avoid any physical infrastructure”.

Single market access

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin proposed making Northern Ireland a “special economic zone” within the UK that would have access to the EU single market. He said this could be done without any diminution of its sovereignty.

He said the wider Border area could also be included in the area “to provide a bigger economic base.”

Mr Martin also criticised the Government for “overhyping” the backstop agreement from last December, which he said had caused “serious damage”.

That agreement between the EU and the UK stated that, in the absence of another solution for the Border, Northern Ireland would effectively remain within the EU customs union.

British prime minister Theresa May has since indicated she will not agree to such an arrangement.

Mr Martin said the Irish Government had engaged in “over-spinning” the backstop proposal as a solution to a hard border. He echoed calls from the EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier to “de-dramatise an arrangement which our own government helped dramatise”.

Questioned by reporters before the event about proposals from Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for a 2020 general election in Ireland, Mr Coveney said “it makes sense.”

“Nobody wants an election right now. Certainly Fine Gael don’t want it. I don’t think Fianna Fáil want one. The Irish people aren’t asking for an election. What they are asking for is for us to deal with the uncertainty of Brexit, to make progress on housing policy and health reform,” he told reporters.

“The issues around the confidence and supply are really a matter for the Taoiseach and Micheal Martin to determine. This is something they have said they will meet on again in September.”