Foster and McGuinness tell May they want central role in Brexit process

British prime minister rules out special deals for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales

Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster speaking to journalists after attending the  meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee in Downing Street  on Monday. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster speaking to journalists after attending the meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee in Downing Street on Monday. Photograph: Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

 

Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness have told Theresa May that they must be at the heart of the process of negotiating Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.

Northern Ireland’s First and Deputy First Ministers were speaking after a meeting with the prime minister in which Downing Street ruled out any special deals for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

At the meeting, also attended by the Scottish and Welsh leaders, Ms May offered the devolved administrations a direct line into preparations for Brexit through a committee chaired by Brexit secretary David Davis.

But Scotland’s first minister Nicola Sturgeon described the meeting as frustrating, offering no clarity over the British government’s approach to negotiations with the EU.

Mr McGuinness said after the meeting that there was a “very tough and challenging negotiation ahead” with a joint responsibility to manage the situation. Ms Foster said the devolved administrations needed a meaningful engagement in a process she described as still in its infancy.

“We’re in a negotiation and we will be in a negotiation and it will be complex. And what’s important is that we are in the heart of that process,” she said.

Earlier, the prime minister’s official spokeswoman said Ms May wanted a united negotiating position, with a single set of arrangements applying to all parts of the UK. And she warned the leaders of the devolved administrations against any actions which could undermine the UK’s negotiating position.

“I’m not seeking to undermine anyone, I don’t know what the UK’s negotiating position is, so there’s nothing there that I can see to undermine,” Ms Sturgeon said after the meeting.

“I’m the first minister of Scotland; 62 per cent voted to remain. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I wasn’t out there talking to people and doing my best to protect Scotland’s interests. I can’t undermine something that doesn’t exist, and at the moment it doesn’t seem to me like there is a UK negotiating strategy, which is one of the sources of great frustration.”

Welsh first minister Carwyn Jones agreed that the lack of clarity about Ms May’s intentions in the negotiations made it difficult for the devolved administrations to engage constructively in the process.

Although Wales, like England, voted to leave the EU, Mr Jones said it was essential that it should retain full access to the European single market after Brexit.

Starting point

“I welcome the fact the UK government has conceded to the demands of the devolved administrations to meet more frequently, and for us to have a meaningful role in developing the future work programme related to Brexit.”

Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire, who also attended the meeting, said he would be an advocate for the North within the government, adding that his colleagues were conscious that there were particular areas of concern in the North.

“We are unified in our approach with the Irish Government to make sure we don’t see a return to the borders of the past,” he said.

Monday’s Joint Ministerial Committee meeting was the first between the British prime minister and the leaders of the three devolved administrations in more than two years.

The new subcommittee chaired by Mr Davis will meet for the first time next month and meet regularly after that in advance of the start of formal Brexit talks next spring.