Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams has expressed his party’s dismay after a meeting on Brexit between the 26 County Taoiseach Enda Kenny and the new British Prime Minister Theresa May focused exclusively on the imposition of new customs and immigration controls along the Irish border.
While Kenny and May pledged to find “creative and imaginative” ways to deal with customs checks following Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, there was no discussion about recognising the vote by the north of Ireland to remain part of the EU -- despite recent media attention on Kenny’s comments about the possibility of Irish reunification.
Speaking after a 75-minute meeting at 10 Downing Street with Theresa May, the Taoiseach said they had agreed a joint approach to the future of the border between both parts of Ireland after Britain leaves the EU.
“A hard border in normal circumstances means customs posts and customs checks in various places,” he said. “There will be no return to the hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland of the past, which included towers and military equipment, obviously for different reasons. So I do not favour, I do not agree to a hard border, with a whole range of customs posts, and neither does the prime minister.”
Mr Adams, who is TD for the border constituency of Louth, expressed his “deep disappointment” at the failure of the Taoiseach Enda Kenny to respect and uphold the vote of the people of the Six Counties to remain within the EU.
He said: “I agree with the Taoiseach’s objective of minimising the likely damage arising from the Brexit vote and of co-ordinating our response to it. However, there is no point in having that objective if, at his first meeting with the British Prime Minister, the Taoiseach fails to defend the rights of citizens in the North to remain within the EU.”
For her part, May said she was committed to maintaining the economic relationship between the two countries, to the Stormont process and to preserving the benefits of the Common Travel Area, the existing legal framework which permits the flow of people and free trade across both islands.
“There is a strong will on both sides to preserve it and so we must now focus on securing a deal that is in the interest of both of us,” she said.
Both Kenny and May referred to the possibility of increased use of surveillance watchtowers and electronic data to monitor cross-border trade activity and minimise the need for physical checkpoints.
“There are other ways of dealing with modern technology in terms of checking trade,” Kenny said. “I think these are things that need to be looked at creatively and imaginatively but we are both agreed very firmly that there will be no return to a hard border as it used to be.”
Mr Adams warned that any restrictions on the border as part of an attempted “soft landing” would have serious economic consequences for Ireland, and that a key party to any agreement was out of the loop.
“Brexit presents a significant threat to the two economies on this island,” he said. “The Irish government has a responsibility to defend the vote of citizens in the North to remain within the EU and to protect the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.”
Mr Kenny’s failure to present a 32 county approach to the British Prime Minister comes just days after he grabbed headlines with comments to the MacGill summer school in Donegal in which he called for an approach which would allow Irish reunification.
However, in just the latest u-turn for the Fine Gael leader on the issue, he quickly retreated from that position when speaking at a meeting of the British-Irish Council in Wales this week. He said that a vote on a united Ireland “is not going to be the case now or in the medium term, or perhaps ever”.
Polls have shown increased support for a united Ireland on both sides of the border, with the latest showing two thirds of voters in the 26 Counties prepared to vote for immediate reunification, and a clear majority on the island as a whole.
Sinn Fein’s Conor Murphy said momentum for Irish unity was building.
“Partition was disastrous for Ireland north and south. As Irish republicans, we want to build a new and better Ireland, in Europe and encompassing all sections of our people,” he said.
“We now have an opportunity to redefine relationships across the island and with the EU. We want to see a wide-ranging debate, involving all sections of the community, about what that new Ireland would look like and how it can be achieved.”
Earlier this week, Sinn Fein said was prepared to consider alternative forms of governance for the Ireland, rather than straight unification.
Speaking as the party’s ard comhairle (national executive) met in Dublin on Saturday Mr Adams added: “Can we be open to other suggestions either as interim or transitional measures or as a form of governance for the whole island? Yes of course we can.”
He said the Taoiseach had “flip-flopped” on unity, but there is now a real opportunity to discuss a new, reimagined confident Ireland.
“A lot of Unionists are concerned about very negative consequences of being dragged out of the EU - people in business, people in agriculture” and in other sectors.
“It isn’t a matter of dragging them into a united Ireland but it is a matter of thinking about new relationships and they are thinking about new relationships.”
Mr Adams called for Dublin to develop a clear position. “What is required is a consistent, strategic position that doesn’t have to be in your face.” The position should be carefully, thoughtfully arrived at and the 26 County government should then ensure “it’s quietly pursued”.
“We need to go beyond the rhetoric and actually sit down and think about it and try to get all-party agreement on different measures, which would make the whole prospect, which is achievable, more achievable in the short-term.”
A lot of people in the North, he said, remarked on the fact that “the Taoiseach and the Fianna Fail leader were fulsome in their support for Scotland.
“It took them about a month to come around and say something positive about the North. That vote in the North (to remain in the EU) has to be respected.”
He noted that “no one blinked” when British prime minister Theresa May “stressed her unionist credentials”.
She was quite right to assert her position. “We need our Government equally to assert its position. Why would unionism think about a united Ireland if political leaders here are stuck in a partitionist mindset, a 26 county mindset?”
He said “if you want a situation to move forward - some of us are in the vanguard on this, others have a more dilatory approach.
“But what is required is consistency and this isn’t just a matter of six counties joining 26 it’s a matter of reimagining Ireland, of a genuinely new Ireland.”