North needs greater emphasis in Brexit talks, says EU negotiator

Guy Verhofstadt says Border solution and peace process are issues of great importance

European Parliament Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt has said it is vital the peace process and the Belfast Agreement are further secured, during his two-day fact-finding mission to Ireland.

After Mr Verhofstadt met delegations from the DUP, Sinn Féin, SDLP, UUP and Alliance at Stormont on Wednesday, he said the peace process has not been sufficiently emphasised during Brexit negotiations between the EU and the UK.

"Every solution inside Brexit needs to take into account this peace process and the Good Friday Agreement and there is no hard Border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, " he said.

“It is something that is a concern that is not sufficient at present around the negotiation table.”

Mr Verhofstadt said he had not seen a workable solution to the Irish Border problem put forward by the British government and told RTÉ “you could imagine” Northern Ireland staying in the customs union and single market but it is up to the UK to develop “a unique solution”.

Unionists rejected this idea.

DUP MEP Diane Dodds said Brexit is UK-wide and "we will not countenance a solution that makes us different from other parts of the United Kingdom".

UUP leader Robin Swann said it was a sovereignty issue and his party "can't see how that situation can come about".

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said he was pleased the European Parliament official was on board with the idea of the North staying in the customs union and single market and that he had agreed it was madness there is no devolved government in place at present to make strong representation on Brexit.

Collateral damage

Sinn Féin northern leader Michelle O’Neill accused the British government of viewing Ireland as “collateral damage in their reckless Brexit agenda”.

“Today’s meeting was part of that ongoing process to press the case for the North to be granted special status to remain in the EU because that is the only credible way to prevent the catastrophe that Brexit will visit upon Ireland,” she said.

Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry MLA said he stressed that a “one size fits all” Brexit for the UK would not work and remaining with the single market was best for Northern Ireland.

He said this should be viewed as “a devolution max situation, and be entirely consistent with the current constitutional position and the principle of consent”.

After his Stormont engagements Mr Verhofstadt had a look at a republican commemoration site and a loyalist mural site in inner east Belfast.

Monaghan trip

Mr Verhofstadt then travelled to Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, for meetings with the Border Communities Against Brexit campaign group, the Irish Road Haulage Association and the employers' body Ibec.

IRHA president Verona Murphy said fluctuation in currency was bringing incomes down and combined with Government measures introduced to reduce loading capacity is having "a grave effect".

"Our income is going down and our costs are going up and I don't think that it is happening in the road haulage sector anywhere else in Europe, " she said.

“We will not be able to afford a customs border that is hard or soft.

“Any type of a border across North and South is going to have a devastating effect – it won’t be affordable, not just for to our industry but to the whole of Ireland.”

Border Communities Against Brexit member Damian McGenity, from Dromintee, Co Armagh, said British government proposals are "a nonsense" and he is pleased Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Alliance are engaging on concerns about the Irish Border. "We need some certainty," he said.

“His visit will put more pressure on the British government to take a harder look at the Irish Border. Everybody knows what needs to happen here.”

On Thursday after meeting with the Taoiseach in Dublin he will speak to members of the Houses of Oireachtas.