Savvy diplomacy needed to achieve Brexit talks extension – Coveney

Dáil told ‘we have to have plans in place to try to protect Irish interests as best we can’

Ireland and the European Union need to be clever and diplomatic about the "ways and means" of achieving an extension to Brexit negotiations, Tánaiste Simon Coveney has told the Dáil.

He said the British position was clear – they would not be seeking an extension and he acknowledged that they would need longer than the end of the year to achieve a proper deal.

He warned that if they could not reach agreement because of the timelines “we have to have plans in place to try to protect Irish interests as best we can”.

June is the deadline for agreement to extend the negotiating period but the United Kingdom has said it faces ending the transitional period at the end of this year, which would become the deadline for a trade deal.

Opposition TDs called on the Government and European Union to ask the UK to extend negotiations because of the pressures involved and the coronavirus crisis.

But speaking during a Dáil debate on Brexit, Mr Coveney said “the idea that the ask should come from Ireland or the EU, where it would be seen by the UK as a concession to the EU to agree to an extension, is not the way to approach this. We need to work to convince the UK that more time is needed to get a good deal for everybody, including the UK.”

Several TDs raised concerns about the United Kingdom’s refusal to allow an EU office in Belfast. Mr Coveney said he assumed that “politics have been created around this issue. We have to find a way to diffuse it and find a sensible approach to ensure there can be an EU presence to reassure the EU side that the protocol [on Northern Ireland] is being implemented fully.”

Sinn Féin finance spokesman Pearse Doherty said if the British position did not change they were potentially looking at a Cabinet subcommittee preparing a Plan B or other alternatives.

Mr Coveney said “the easy thing is just to call for an extension, but we do not get an extension unless the UK side wants to pursue that approach”.

He said there is “no hidden solution that will pop up in a few weeks’ time” and they would have to try “to find a way of getting an agreement on these very difficult timelines”.

What about a trade deal?

Mr Coveney warned that “if it is not possible to conclude an agreement because of the tightness of these timelines we have to have plans in place to try to protect Irish interests as best we can”.

He told Green Party finance spokeswoman Neasa Hourigan and Independent TD Marian Harkin that the Unite Kingdom is refusing to deal with the issue of a level playing field and common standards but wanted facilitation on a trade deal.

“If we do not have serious negotiation and engagement from the UK side on level playing field issues” then “we are running into a roadblock”, he said.

People Before Profit TD Richard Boyd Barrett said that if Ireland is going to make the case to the North for a united Ireland "we must at a minimum have an all-Ireland national health service which is properly resourced, with the necessary capacity, where we treat our health workers properly and well. People in the North will not be attracted to a united Ireland if it involves a two-tier under-resourced, under-capacity health service."

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is a parliamentary reporter with The Irish Times