Northern Ireland custom border checks still a possibility, says Coveney

Minister rejects suggestion Dublin is pushing Brexit on the EU’s terms on the British

During Prime Minister questions, British PM Theresa May said that both her and her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, were committed to no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Video: Parliament TV


Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has left open the possibility of customs border checks even with Northern Ireland being aligned with EU customs union and single market rules post-Brexit.

Mr Coveney told reporters in Dublin that under the EU’s draft Brexit agreement a specialist joint committee comprising EU and UK representatives would try “to figure out the practicalities of that”.

“If there does need to be any customs checks, they would be done in partnership between the EU and UK customs teams, but of course our preference is there would be no customs checks required,” he said.

“Any details or issues that need to be resolved will have to be resolved between the two sides.”

The Government did not want to see customs checks on trade north and south of the border or east and west between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK or between Ireland and the UK, he said.

Mr Coveney rejected any suggestion that Brussels or Dublin was trying to push Brexit on the EU’s terms on the British saying that the draft simply put a “draft legal treaty text” around the EU-UK political agreement reached in December that covered the default “backstop” scenario.

That option, agreed to avoid a hard border, would involve north-south alignment should a wider EU-UK trade deal not be agreed or if London failed to come with a specific solution for Northern Ireland.

“This isn’t trying to provoke. It is not trying to re-interpret,” said Mr Coveney.

Echoing the view of EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, the Minister said that nobody should be surprised by the content of the draft agreement as it was “simply a legalistic text” of December’s deal.

“We are not hardening our position; we are simply holding our position,” he said.

DUP criticism

Responding to criticism from the DUP that the EU was interfering in the sovereignty of the UK, the minister said the EU could not have included the British commitment given to the party that there were would be no new regulatory borders between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom.

“If the EU had attempted to put the text around what many unionists would regard rightly as a matter between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom and therefore a sovereign issue for the British government, they would accuse the European Union of overreach,” he said.

The Government was essentially saying that Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK and that there was “no constitutional issue here,” he said, but it wanted to create “a regulatory space” permitting trade on the island of Ireland “in a way that’s not inhibited by barriers and borders.”

Mr Coveney described as “strange” the comparison made by UK foreign secretary Boris Johnson between the challenges of managing a post-Brexit Irish Border with two boroughs in London.

He declined to be drawn on what he called domestic UK politics and said he took his understanding of the British government’s position from prime minister Theresa May. He looked forward to her key Brexit speech on Friday for clues on what the British want from a future EU-UK agreement, he said.

“It is because the absence of a clear understanding of what the British government is asking for in terms of a future relationship that we have had to insist on a default position in the context of the unique challenges that Ireland faces,” he said.

“Until we get that clarity, well we of course have to hold on to that default position because it’s all we got.”

Mr Coveney raised doubts about whether the next critical EU summit on March 22nd and 23rd, which is expected to discuss a future EU-UK trade deal, would be successful given the political opposition to the draft agreement. He said that it was “hard to tell today” whether that can be successful or not.

“This is a difficult negotiation. There’s a lot at stake,” he said.

“There is a debate raging within Britain on the rights and wrongs of the different options that are open to them in the context of Brexit.”