It will be extremely challenging to give effect to the commitments made by the British government on the future of Northern Ireland’s border, one of Ireland’s lead Brexit negotiators said yesterday (17 January).
A breakthrough on the status of the Irish border allowed Britain and the European Union to strike a deal in December to pave the way for talks on future trade ties after Britain leaves the bloc in 2019.
In a concession to Dublin, the agreement said that if Britain cannot strike the kind of free trade deal it wishes, Northern Ireland would remain aligned with the rules of the EU’s single market and customs union, both of which Theresa May’s government is officially committed to leaving.
But it also includes a clause to appease the Democratic Unionist Party that no new regulatory barriers would develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
“The British government has made a series of very welcome and important commitments. But of course giving effect to those commitments will be extremely challenging,” said Rory Montgomery, Second Secretary General at the Department of Foreign Affairs, in a speech in Dublin.
— Jane Mahony (@JaneMahony) January 17, 2018
“One of the key questions … is to what extent will it be possible for it to enshrine, if you like, the commitments and protections agreed before Christmas. And of course how will this sit with the other set of commitments made by the British government to the DUP and Northern Ireland,” he said.
“That will be a major challenge.”
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland is a key coalition partner to Theresa May’s Tories.
New bid to restore devolved government
The British and Irish governments are to launch a new round of talks between Northern Ireland’s main parties next week in a bid to re-establish devolved government and avoid a return to direct rule of the region from London for the first time in a decade.
Northern Ireland has been without a fully functioning executive and assembly since January 2017 when the nationalist party Sinn Féin withdrew from the coalition government, saying it was not being treated as an equal partner by its rival, DUP.
The two parties, representing mainly Catholic proponents of uniting with the rest of Ireland and mainly Protestant supporters of continued rule by Britain, have jointly run the province since 2007 under the terms of a 1998 agreement that ended thirty years of conflict.
A new phase of political talks will begin on 24 January to re-establish a devolved executive, a British government official said ahead of an expected announcement by Britain and Ireland, which have jointly sponsored several rounds of talks.
Previous bilateral talks between the DUP and Sinn Féin have failed to meet a number of deadlines to reach agreement.
Britain’s newly appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney will set out the plans for “short, intensive multi-party talks” between Northern Ireland’s five main political parties, the official said.
The talks represented “one last opportunity to reach agreement,” Bradley will say, according to part of her speech seen by Reuters.
Disagreement remains on a range of issues, including same-sex marriage, which remains illegal in Northern Ireland despite being legal in the rest of Britain and Ireland, rights for Irish language speakers and funding for inquests into deaths linked to the conflict.
The DUP has agreed to support the Conservative Party minority government in Britain since June, which Sinn Féin says has made restoring government in Northern Ireland more difficult.