- Ireland stepping up its Brexit preparations as Theresa May visits Northern Irish border to reassure farmers and businesses
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the Irish government must “change gear” to face the “enormous challenge” facing businesses trading between Ireland and Britain.
Earlier this week the Cabinet met in Kerry – at the historic home of Daniel O’Connell – and on Thursday Prime Minister Theresa May headed to the Northern Irish border for a two-day visit to Northern Ireland.
It is feared that a ‘no deal’ Brexit will mean the reintroduction of Border controls between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Also on Thursday Britain’s new Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab went to Brussels for his first meeting with the Commission’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
Mr Varadkar and Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney have insisted that there will be no return to a hard border the World Trade Organisation says that logically – under the existing proposals – there must be.
Those proposals include an amendment from Jacob Rees Mogg’s hard-right Eurosceptic faction of the tory party, the so-called European Research Group, and accepted by Prime Minister Theresa May, which makes it unlawful for Northern Ireland to form a separate customs union from the rest of the UK.
This runs against the EU’s ‘backstop’ proposal which would see Northern Ireland treated as part of the EU customs union.
Barnier, the European Commission and the EU27 all insist that without satisfactory arrangements to prevent the Border there will be no Brexit deal.
This week Ireland announced it is recruiting a thousand more customs officers and veterinary inspectors at its ports and airports over the next year.
Mr Varadkar said at his Cabinet ‘away day’ in Kerry: “We are preparing for a change in the rules of trade between Britain and Ireland in January 2021.
“In the unlikely event of a no-deal hard Brexit next March, of course it won’t be possible to have 1,000 people in place by then but we will make contingency arrangements to do whatever needs to be done in the unlikely event that should arise.”
“We’ve done a lot of preparations already, the public finances are in good order, I know some people are telling me we shouldn’t set up a rainy day fund and that we shouldn’t go about balancing the books, but if we do run into trouble over the next couple of years, it will be because of Brexit.
“That’s why it makes sense to have a rainy day fund, it makes sense to balance the books, that if the proverbial hits the fan that we won’t find ourselves where we were 10 years ago, that we will have a rainy day fund and that the public finances will be in order and that we don’t have to do the kind of things we did 10 years ago – raising taxes, cutting pay, cutting spending.
“We’ll be in a much better place to deal with any shock that may arise and an obvious place to which that shock could arise would be a disorderly Brexit.”
Meanwhile, ahead of Mrs May’s visit to Northern Ireland Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the Green Party issued a joint statement expressing concern that key promises on continued access had not yet been fully met.
All of Northern Ireland’s parties – with the exception of the DUP whose ten MPs support Mrs May’s minority government in the Commons – opposed Brexit and wish to remain in the EU, as do a significant majority of Northern Irish voters.
In their joint statement, the parties said: “We are at a crucial point in the Brexit negotiations.
“Guarantees were given in the Joint Report between the British Government and the EU in December that there would be no diminution of rights as a result of Brexit, on the rights of people resident here and that the Good Friday Agreement would be protected.”
The parties accused Mrs May of not translating these promises into the official withdrawal agreement.
Significant areas of concern remain and there is little sign of any tangible progress on a range of important matters
They said: “These guarantees have yet to be fully translated into legally binding text and reflected in the Draft Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.
“Significant areas of concern remain, and there is little sign of any tangible progress on a range of important matters.”
They said any deal must “faithfully reflect and translate into law all rights and equality commitments made in the first phase of the negotiations”.
They want guarantees on continued access to university education for EU students, and safeguards for European Economic Area migrants workers in Northern Ireland.
The parties also want the continued provision of healthcare services in Ireland, including the Children’s Heart Centre in Dublin and Northwest Cancer Centre in Derry/Londonderry.
Speaking ahead of her trip to the Northern Ireland border Mrs May said: “I fully recognise how their livelihoods, families and friends rely on the ability to move freely across the border to trade, live and work on a daily basis. That’s why we have ruled out any kind of hard border.
“Daily journeys will continue to be seamless and there will be no checks or infrastructure at the border to get in the way of this.”
Northern Ireland has been without a devolved administration since January 2017.