But North’s McGuinness and Foster say Theresa May assured them of no return to ‘hard Border’
By Bernard Purcell
Just a week after it emerged there is no place at the Cabinet’s Brexit talks table for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, Prime Minister Theresa May this week offered First Ministers in Belfast, Edinburgh and Cardiff what she called a “direct line” to Brexit Secretary David Davis ahead of the UK’s negotiations to leave the EU.
Mrs May held talks with the first ministers at Downing Street on Monday at which she was told the devolved regions want, at the very least, to be able to vote on any package drawn up or secured by Mr. Davis.
The exchanges took place at the first joint ministerial committee since 2014 which brought together Mrs May, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, Wales’s First Minister Carwyn Jones and Northern Ireland’s First and Deputy First Ministers Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness.
DUP MP Ian Paisley Jr, whose party campaigned to leave the EU, tweeted an image of Ms Foster and Mr McGuinness at the Cabinet table in Downing Street, drawing allusions to treaty negotiations in 1921 to taunt Mr McGuinness. In June Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU by a far greater margin than England and Wales voted to leave.
But despite the apparent olive branch proffered by Mrs May, Downing Street insisted that it would not allow Edinburgh or Belfast to “undermine” the Brexit negotiations because a united UK negotiating position was “vital to protect the UK’s interest as a whole”.
She told the meeting she did not want “separate deals in separate parts of the UK, confusing issues and undermining her negotiating strategy”.
Before the meeting Mrs May said she was entirely committed to strengthening the union and making the most of Brexit. Her officials briefed journalists that she would tell the Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh ministers that “that how the UK leaves the EU will not boil down to a binary choice”.
Mrs May herself said she wanted more frequent meetings between Cabinet and the devolved administrations – Monday’s was the first since 2014 – taking place at least once a year. They should be held, she said, in Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England on a revolving basis.
Mrs May is proposing that Mr Davis chair a new forum bringing together representatives from the devolved nations before the prime minister triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, formally starting the two-year Brexit process, by the end of March next year.
“The new forum I am offering will be the chance for them all to put forward their proposals on how to seize the opportunities presented by Brexit and deliver the democratic decision expressed by the people of the UK,” she said. “When I stood upon the steps of Downing Street I made clear the importance of our great union.
“Far more than mere geography brings us together – and we are much more than the sum of our parts. As we move into this new chapter, we must seize the opportunities ahead, as we will achieve far more together than we could ever do apart.
“I want (Monday’s) meeting to be the start of a new grown-up relationship between the devolved administrations and the UK government – one in which we all work together to forge the future for everyone in the United Kingdom,” said the Prime Minister.
Afterwards Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, said he had made clear to the Prime Minister that Northern Ireland’s Executive wants no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland when the UK leaves the European Union.
He said: “Agreements like the Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement are contingent on there being no obstructions between North and South.
“You can now travel from the centre of Belfast to the centre of Dublin in almost an hour and a half; you won’t be stopped at a red light or a checkpoint of any description. We want that to continue.”
Northern Ireland’s First Minister and DUP Leader Arlene Foster said they had received definitive assurances from the Prime Minister “there would not be a hard border – this an agreement between her, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government.”
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she was prepared to stand back and see Scotland “driven off a hard Brexit cliff.”
Ms Sturgeon last week pointed out that the country had voted decisively to stay in the EU and had been promised detailed and intensive consultation. This, she said, had not happened since Mrs May’s initial visit to Holyrood and if such bad faith continued she would push for a second referendum on Scottish independence.
Under current UK law Ms Sturgeon has no such powers but it proved very potent to her supporters in the SNP. Meanwhile the Institute for Government think tank warned the UK would face a “full-blown constitutional crisis” unless all nations of the UK agree the approach to Brexit.
It said imposing a settlement on Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland may be legally possible but “if it proves impossible to find consensus the result may be a serious breakdown in relations between the four governments (and nations) of the UK”.