Tánaiste Simon Coveney has warned the divided British government that Ireland won’t be flexible on the outcome of the post-Brexit Irish Border, saying there is no technical solution to avoid a hard Border.
Mr Coveney was speaking as the British cabinet remained split on how to avoid a hard Border in Ireland. One senior minister, Environment Secretary Michael Gove, cast fresh doubt on the viability of Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed post-Brexit customs partnership with the EU, saying it had “flaws”. He said there were “significant question marks” about whether the model was deliverable.
Mr Coveney did not address Mr Gove’s remarks directly at a joint press conference with his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian. “We are happy to be flexible if the British government brings forward some new thinking, but what we’re not flexible [on] is the outcome,” Mr Coveney warned.
He added: “We had an agreement in writing from the British prime minister on multiple occasions that there would be no hard physical infrastructure on the island of Ireland and no associated checks or controls.”
Mr Le Drian said “the French position is simple” and that the European Council meeting next month was the “ultimate deadline” for a deal on the Irish Border.
Earlier, Mr Coveney appeared on the BBC where he dismissed the idea of using any form of infrastructure to maintain two different customs regimes on either side of the Border.
And he said the Irish Government expected the British government to honour the so-called ‘backstop’ option to avoid a hard Border.
His intervention led to criticism from DUP MP Sammy Wilson, who accused him of “Brit-bashing”.
Mrs May used a newspaper article yesterday to reiterate her pledge that “there can be no hard Border”.
In an apparent bid to placate hard-line Brexiteers, she also said she would deliver on taking back control of the UK’s borders, money and laws.
UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has described her preferred customs partnership model as “crazy”.
Mr Coveney was asked about this criticism of the option during an interview on the BBC’s ‘The Andrew Marr Show’.
The Tánaiste said that the Irish Government “take our lead from the prime minister”, not Mr Johnson. He said that some kind of customs partnership “can be the basis of a negotiation to find a way forward”.
Mr Coveney also pointed out that the British government had given a commitment to the EU that it would avoid border infrastructure last December.
“That means we are not talking about cameras and scanning systems and drones here.
“It means we are talking about a political solution that allows for regulatory alignment in a way that prevents the need for border infrastructure,” he said.
The Tánaiste warned of a “difficult summer” of negotiations if the British government didn’t honour a commitment agreeing to a “backstop” option if Brexit talks fail to reach a trade deal.
This would mean that both sides of the Border would maintain regulatory alignment, a prospect that has angered Unionists.
DUP MP Mr Wilson last night claimed Mr Coveney was “belligerent”, “interfering” and “Brit-bashing”. Mr Wilson added: “The IRA failed to dislodge Northern Ireland from the UK with bombs. Coveney won’t do it with Brexit.”
A spokesman for Mr Coveney insisted that nothing he said was a threat to unionism and that the Irish Government recognised and respected that Northern Ireland would leave the EU with the rest of the UK.
Mr Gove made his comments speaking later on the same BBC broadcast as Mr Coveney.
In relation to proposals for a customs partnership, he said: “Because no model like this exists, there have to be significant question marks over the deliverability of it on time.”
He said it was his view that the proposal “has flaws and they need to be tested”.
Mr Gove said he was against extending the current customs union to allow more time to come up with a new system to replace it.
Mr Coveney is travelling to Brussels today where he will meet with the EU’s negotiator Michel Barnier.