UK and Irish governments move to cool rhetoric over Brexit

Analysis: Few in Westminster believe EU will allow Ireland stop talks moving to phase two

UK Brexit minister Robin Walker emphasised the strength of the relationship between London and Dublin. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

UK Brexit minister Robin Walker emphasised the strength of the relationship between London and Dublin. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

 

After last week’s Sturm und Drang between Britain and Ireland over the Border, both governments have sought in recent days to cool the rhetoric. Brexit minister Robin Walker and Northern Ireland minister Chloe Smith went out of their way on Wednesday to praise the Irish Government and emphasise the strength of the relationship between London and Dublin.

Britain and the European Union have reached agreement on the shape of the divorce bill and are close to agreement on citizens’ rights, leaving Ireland as the only priority issue where “sufficient progress” has not been made. Few in Westminster believe the EU will allow Ireland to prevent Brexit talks from moving into their second phase after next month’s summit and some remain angry that Ireland is demanding more assurances on the Border before moving ahead.

Any promise of regulatory convergence between the North and the Republic is difficult for Britain

Ian Paisley on Wednesday accused Ireland of seeking to use Brexit to separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom and move towards a united Ireland. Another DUP MP, Jim Shannon, said the EU was wagging Ireland’s tail by insisting on a customs border if the UK leaves the customs union.

Joint principles

Behind the scenes, however, British, Irish and EU officials are working on a form of words that could strengthen Britain’s guarantee that there will be no hard Border after Brexit. Britain and the EU have already agreed joint principles on the Common Travel Area and the Belfast Agreement, which both sides agree must be respected in its entirety.

This could form the basis for an agreement on the future of the Border, with both sides acknowledging that adhering to the agreement means maintaining cross-Border relations essentially as they are today. Mr Walker on Wednesday said Britain wanted to “ensure that people can go about their lives as they have in recent years”. And Ms Smith added that maintaining everyday life as it is today includes such areas of North-South co-operation as accessing health services on the other side of the Border.

Any promise of regulatory convergence between the North and the Republic is difficult for Britain, which has insisted that Northern Ireland will leave the customs union and the single market with the rest of the UK. But having come this far, stretching her backbenchers’ tolerance with a generous offer on the divorce bill, will prime minister Theresa May be prepared to risk failure next month rather than taking an extra step on the Border?

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