Brokenshire says progress on Irish border vital to Brexit talks

NI Secretary of State says Britain ‘determined to press on’ despite lack of breakthrough

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire. File Photograph: Mark Marlow/PA Wire

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire. File Photograph: Mark Marlow/PA Wire

 

Making progress on the Irish border is essential in moving Brexit negotiations to the next phase, NI Secretary of State James Brokenshire has said.

In a speech to a Brussels thinktank, Mr Brokenshire appeared to acknowledge that there remains some way to go before the UK crosses the “sufficient progress” line in the Irish strand of the Brexit talks.

But, he said, the UK is “determined to press on so that we can move to the next phase of negotiation”.

Mr Brokenshire said he hoped that would be possible by December.

Leaning almost entirely on the British government’s August Northern Ireland Brexit paper, he brought little new in specifics to the aspiration that he said both the EU and UK shared for what he called “as frictionless and seamless a border as possible between Northern Ireland and Ireland, with no physical infrastructure”.

Mr Brokenshire was speaking to the European Policy Centre thinktank after meeting the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and Irish Commissioner Phil Hogan. He also met Sir Julian King, the British Commissioner, to discuss security developments in the North.

In reporting on the state of talks to restore the Northern Executive, the Secretary of State said that although he would be forced to introduce the Northern budget in Westminster to stop the North runnning out of money, he remained committed to the restoration.

“Northern Ireland needs a fully-functioning Executive to ensure that its voice is fully heard as the UK leaves the EU,” he said.

It also needed the Executive to provide the local leadership which is so crucial to building the economy and to providing an alternative to the role of paramilitaries, he said.

“If the strategy for tackling paramilitary activity is going to be at its most effective … and that will only be seen through results on the ground … then it needs to be led locally,” he said.

On Brexit, he insisted the UK would leave the customs union and the single market and “we need to ensure that nothing is done that undermines the integrity of the UK single market”.

Difficult to imagine

Northern Ireland companies sold four times as much into Britain than to Ireland in 2015, he said. “I find it difficult to imagine how Northern Ireland could somehow remain in … while the rest of the country leaves.”

But while rejecting any idea of special status for the North, Mr Brokenshire emphasised the particular challenges the agri-food sector faces after Brexit. He argued, as the August UK paper had suggested, that it should be possible for the North to shadow EU veterinary and health regulations after Brexit.

After all, he said, there was already within the EU a difference in the veterinary regimes between Ireland and the UK, which he said were regarded as separate “epidemiological units”. That had allowed the isolation of the Irish herd during the BSE crisis.

He believed such a distinct all-Ireland regime was “doable” in “terms of maintaining standards without creating barriers east-west in terms of the UK markets”.

He refused to be drawn on the opportunities to develop a Northern agri-food regime which might arise post-Brexit from the devolution back to the Northern Ireland Assembly of agriculture policy now run by the EU’s farm regime.

He said the discussion of such issues, which also arise in Scotland, was another reason why the restoration of the Northern Executive is important.