Tánaiste Simon Coveney has ruled out any Brexit side-talks after British prime minister Theresa May suggested direct negotiations between Ireland, the UK, and the EU.
Ms May made it clear that it would be “unacceptable” to reintroduce a hard border between the North and Ireland, but added “it is for all of us to work together”.
“The Taoiseach and I agreed, when we met recently, that our teams and the Commission should now do just that,” said Ms May.
However, a spokesman for Mr Coveney stressed that Brexit negotiations are firmly between the EU and the UK. “Michel Barnier is the chief negotiator and there will be no bilateral side negotiations,” the spokesman told the Irish Examiner.
“The Taoiseach’s offer to help was in the same way we will help in every aspect of the negotiation, by feeding into the overall process through the taskforce.”
Ms May also ruled out a regulatory border down the Irish Sea, which would allow the North to remain in the customs union.
This had been included in the EU’s draft legal text, published in Brussels on Wednesday.
She said this is her “personal commitment” to keep the North in the UK’s own common market.
“Just as it would be unacceptable to go back to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, it would also be unacceptable to break up the United Kingdom’s own common market, by creating a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea,” said Ms May.
“As prime minister of the whole United Kingdom, I am not going to let our departure from the European Union do anything to set back the historic progress that we have made in Northern Ireland — nor will I allow anything that would damage the integrity of our precious Union.”
Mr Coveney said the EU’s draft withdrawal agreement text outlined the “fall-back mechanism” if the first two options did not succeed.
“This would entail, if necessary, full alignment in Northern Ireland with those rules of the single market and customs union necessary to protect North-South co-operation, the all-island economy, and the Good Friday Agreement, and to avoid a hard border,” he said.
Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald said Ms May had “failed to grasp the hard truths and realities of Brexit”.
Welcoming Ms May’s opposition to a border in the Irish Sea, DUP leader Arlene Foster said the speech had “set forward the basis upon which it would be possible to move forward”.
She warned that securing a “sensible outcome for everyone will require the EU27 to consider innovative solutions, rather than rule out any proposal which has not been conceived in Brussels”.
While welcoming the fact that Ms May had signalled “clear commitment” to the Good Friday agreement, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he “remains concerned that some of the constraints of leaving the customs union and the single market are still not fully recognised”.
Mr Varadkar said: “We will now need to see more detailed and realistic proposals from the UK. Brexit is due to happen in a little over 12 months, so time is short.
“Meanwhile, we will continue to work closely with Michel Barnier and his team, and the other member states, as we prepare for the March European Council, which is expected to agree new negotiation guidelines.”
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