COVENEY: We will not accept vague promises on future of Border

Posted By: November 30, 2017

Two weeks out from the crunch summit that will dictate the course of Brexit negotiations, Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney tells political correspondent John Manley why Dublin is digging its heels in on The Border issue.

John Manley. Irish News. Belfast. Thursday, November 30, 2017

Simon Coveney is keen to stress his own affinity with Britain.

His late mother’s family was English, and he studied for three years in Gloucestershire before working in Scotland. Today his brother runs a firm in Britain employing more than 10,000 people.

As the Corkman’s own relationship with Ireland’s nearest neighbor flourished so too did once-frosty diplomatic ties. However, the Republic’s foreign affairs minister told The Irish News that these are being “somewhat tested” by the fall-out from Brexit.

“Ireland is hugely disappointed that Britain and the United Kingdom as a whole has chosen to leave the European Union.

“We think the EU will be lesser and weaker for that but we also think it creates huge challenges for us to overcome – and maybe they weren’t the focus of discussion and debate when they should’ve been in the context of the referendum.”

Mr. Coveney (45) is at pains to point out that the Republic’s approach to the Brexit negotiations has been consistent,  and initially the UK government, too,  was content with that course. Only in recent months has the divergence become apparent.

“We have supported the EU approach, which Britain also supported at the start, of having a phased approach to the negotiations,” he says.

He applauds Britain’s aspirations and language about a frictionless border, but the Republic’s government is holding firm on progress on the issue because it’s felt the UK is sending out mixed signals.

“There is a fundamental contradiction in terms of managing an all-Ireland economy in the areas where we have agreed to have north-south cooperation and at the same time the clear statements coming from the British negotiating team – that they’re leaving the customs union, leaving the single market, leaving the European Union and all of the United Kingdom will leave under the same terms.

“We’re trying to figure out a way of squaring this circle.”

At present Mr. Coveney feels the Republic is being asked “to essentially accept a promise for the future without any credible parameters in terms of how that’s going to be achieved”.

The Fine Gael deputy leader’s stance has drawn criticism from Brexiteers.

“I’ve been accused by some of using this issue in a way that’s inappropriate to try to put pressure on the British side in terms of the Brexit negotiations – that’s simply not true,” he says.

Mr. Coveney says Dublin has tried to be “firm but polite” in seeking a resolution to The Border issue, which he believes is equally important to Unionists and Nationalists.

He regrets that Brexit has turned into a “green and orange issue” and says he has never been an advocate of a so-called wet border between Ireland and Britain.

However, he stresses that The North’s complex geopolitical history demands an innovative post-Brexit solution.

“The truth is that Northern Ireland is different from other parts of the United Kingdom because we agree to do things on an all-Ireland basis – in other words it’s different to Wales and Scotland, and that’s just a pragmatic difference.”

Technological solutions for overcoming the border problem are a non-starter as they would “still involve checks in farmyards, factories and offices”.

For Mr. Coveney, a potential answer lies in the UK as a whole negotiating a trade agreement with the EU that allows both to operate in the same “redesigned” single market.

“The British government can call it a ‘customs union partnership’, which is the language they use – I don’t mind what language they use but what I don’t want is unnecessary barriers to trade on the island of Ireland or between Ireland and Britain.”

Things will come to a head in little over a fortnight’s time when the European Council meets in Brussels.

With the UK’s divorce bill reportedly settled, EU citizens’ rights and Ireland remain the potential stumbling blocks that could hamper negotiations.

“I don’t think it’s unreasonable for us to demand clarity on that because it is part of phase one and we have a lot of solidarity with other EU states on this,” the minister says of the precondition that Ireland be addressed ahead of trade talks.

He says Dublin and the EU want “language that sets credible parameters that reassures people”.

“We are not going to leap into the dark in the hope that a solution that isn’t on the table right now emerges in phase two because what we’re doing then is allowing the difficult questions to move out of phase one into phase two without credible answers.

“I think we have an obligation to ensure there is more clarity and credibility in terms of the way we’re going to deal with the border issue comprehensively.”

Mr. Coveney says “megaphone diplomacy isn’t where we need to be,” but insists Dublin’s position hasn’t changed.

“I think the Irish government’s position… is a fair, consistent and firm position and it is not unreasonable for us to ask for more clarity in terms of how The Border and north-south cooperation issues are going to be dealt with and that is why we are taking the stance we are.

“Unfortunately, some people appear not to like that but we wouldn’t be doing our job if we weren’t asking those hard questions.”