EU could rescue Six Counties from hard Brexit

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With no sign of a British government solution to the issue of the Irish border, the European Union is reportedly preparing a draft of the British withdrawal treaty with the North of Ireland effectively having status within the EU.

The move comes after Brussels’ chief Brexit negotiator warned that border checks will otherwise be unavoidable under British plans to leave the EU single market and customs union.

Mr Barnier also warned that agreement on a transition period to smooth Britain’s exit from the EU was “not a given” -- indicating the possibility remained of a sudden and chaotic introduction of border controls across Ireland.

Michel Barnier made the remarks after London expressed a new determination to leave the customs union and the single European market. The comments also came after unionist hardliner Ian Paisley jnr of the DUP called on the British parliament to adopt a “no surrender attitude”.

Unionists remain focused on a potential blame game with the EU over the introduction of border checks, with the DUP insisting it is only the the EU which is “brandishing the threat of customs controls”.

Last month, South Down Sinn Fein MP Chris Hazzard warned over the possibility of civil disobedience and local anger and frustration in border areas “at even the thought of a customs post going up”.

British officials negotiating in Brussels were told by their counterparts on Tuesday that while full alignment between North and South would be the only option included in the withdrawal treaty, there could be a “sunset clause” included in the legally binding text, which is expected to be published in about two weeks. That clause would allow the text on the border to become obsolete if a better alternative for “regulatory alignment” across the border is found.

Sinn Fein MEP Matt Carthy again called for a broad alliance across Ireland to support special status for the North, which he said is now a “live project”.

“It has been evident for anyone who has examined this matter that the only way in which a hardening of the Irish border can be avoided is for all of Ireland to remain part of the single market and customs union,” he said.

“Anything less risks the imposition of border controls and the undermining of the Good Friday Agreement - it is therefore now time for all Irish political parties and the Irish government to unite in pursuing that goal.”

An official report for the British government found that the North’s economy faces a potential 12% hit as a result of Brexit. But the East Antrim DUP MP Sammy Wilson has repeated the unionist and Tory hard line that Brexit must come at any cost and said the “gloves are off”.

“The blackmailing burghers from Brussels and the cheap political opportunists in Dublin must meet a tough UK government response,” he wrote. “In these negotiations, if the gloves are off, it is time we went into the fray with a no surrender attitude.”

Sinn Fein’s outgoing leader Gerry Adams expressed concern at the developing standoff and urged more clarity to what he described as the “fudge” which was negotiated in December.

“The Irish government must urgently seek clarification from the EU negotiating team on the current state of play with the British,” he said.

“Specifically, we need to know if the legal language of the draft agreement will support the North remaining within the single market and customs union; if the Irish government will support that position; and will it refuse to accept, as was agreed in December, that there will be no hard border?

“The Irish government must also demand that the British government spell out what measures it plans to put in place to ensure that full regulatory alignment is put in place.”

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