English royals Elizabeth and Charles Windsor have delivered the legislative agenda of the presumptive minority government in London for the next two years which revolves around its uncertain plans to withdraw from the European Union.
In an apparent sign of recognition that she must seek a broad consensus for any Brexit deal, British PM Theresa May said getting EU withdrawal right will mean securing “a deal which delivers the result of last year’s referendum and does so in a way that commands maximum public support”.
Doubts continue over whether May, who lost her parliamentary majority in this month’s snap general election, will be able to win support of the parliament to get her legislative programme through Westminster, even with the likely support of the Democratic Unionist Party.
In a press conference with 26 County Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, May again repeated her suggestion that the border through Ireland should be “frictionless and seamless” as possible to recognise “the unique economic, social and political context of the land border with Ireland which so many people pass through every day”.
Reciprocal rights of citizens in both countries should continue, she said, “including the rights guaranteed under the Belfast Agreement”.
Sinn Fein MP Chris Hazzard condemned the Tory government’s approach to Brexit which he said had been a “shambles from day one”, while SDLP leader Colim Eastwood warned May had voiced “soundbites but no substance”.
Speaking at the same press conference, Varadkar said that Ireland was “saddened” by the Brexit decision, but had to respect it. It was now a question of ensuring the least disruptive arrangement for both countries, he said.
He pointed to two “two particular things” his government wanted to focus on: these were the reciprocity of civic rights that exist between Britain and Ireland -- the Common Travel Area -- and an “invisible border”, with the best possible deal on trade.
On Thursday, Sinn Fein welcomed a stronger line by Dublin’s new Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney who said that his government would seek ‘special status’ for the North of Ireland after Brexit.
Speaking at the launch of a Brexit report from the Dublin parliament’s Good Friday Agreement Committee, he dismissed ‘language coming from London’ that technology alone could bypass the need for border posts. He said it would be very helpful to have an ‘all island’ approach to dealing with Brexit, as it would provide clarity for the EU negotiators, and make an impact on the British government’s approach.
“What we are insisting on achieving, is a special status for Northern Ireland that allows the interaction on this island as is currently the case to be maintained as close to the current norm as possible,” he said.
He said that achieving this would require a political solution as well as a practical and technical one that “doesn’t really have any precedent in the European Union”.
“We have to respect the territorial integrity of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, and we need to find a way through the EU negotiating team of getting an acceptance from the British Government and EU partners of a way of doing that which doesn’t compromise the functioning of the common market, or doesn’t create a back door to entering the single market,” Mr Coveney added.
The remarks were welcomed by Sinn Fein, but provoked antagonism from unionists.
“It is a very welcome development that the Dublin government is now coming onto the ground of special status as the only way to prevent a hard border in Ireland in the event of Brexit,” Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson said.
“Special status within the EU would also give effect to the democratic wishes of the majority in the North who voted to remain so Dublin should join us in making that case.
“Sinn Fein has been lobbying every EU member state on the need for special status and there is a great deal of empathy with our position. If the Dublin Government is now also coming on board it will greatly strengthen our case, particularly in the face of Britain’s increasingly chaotic Brexit agenda.”
But Ulster Unionist leader Robin Swann described his comments as a “thinly veiled attempt to break up the Union”.
Coveney quickly sought to distance his position from Sinn Fein’s.
“Others have been campaigning on the basis of using different terminology and so when similar terminology was used by me some people took political advantage of that,” he said.
He insisted that a “unique and special solution” needs to be figured out.
“If part of the island of Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and leaves (the EU) with Brexit then there are all sorts of consequences of that in terms of movement and trade and the normalisation of border activity on both sides of that border.
“We need to find a way of trying to maintain the status quo as best we can in the context of that very significant change.”
Despite the speeches, both governments indicated they were ready to postpone the negotiation of the Brexit plan for Ireland.
The “very sensitive” issue of the Irish border might not be resolved until near the end of the Brexit talks, warned David Davis, Britain’s Brexit Secretary.
Although the issue dominated the opening day of Brexit negotiations, Davis said it could take “until the end of the process” to resolve the issue, because it will be tied in with the trade and customs deals he is able to strike with Brussels.
He said the border is “a technically difficult issue” but it is one which was “soluble, although it will probably take us until the end of the process when we have already decided what our customs and free trade arrangements are.”
EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, who was a senior EU official involved in the peace process, acknowledged that “this is one of the most sensitive issues before us” and there was an “awful lot of work to do”.
Speaking on his way into the opening session of Thursday’s European Council meeting in Brussels, Leo Varadkar also appeared to accept that Ireland would be dealt with towards the end of the expected two years of negotiations.
“I would much rather that we have a good deal for Ireland in time, than one that doesn’t work for us in a shorter time period. And of course when it comes to issues relating to the border, the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, it will be difficult to determine the final shape of that until we know what the new trade arrangements are between the United Kingdom and the EU,” he said.