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Brexit: Simon Coveney urges UK to remain in Customs Union

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney has called on the UK Government to consider remaining in “an extended Customs Union” with the EU after Brexit.

Mr Coveney was addressing the British-Irish Association conference in Cambridge on Saturday evening.

Last month, the UK government recommended no physical changes to Irish border arrangements after Brexit.

The proposals outlined in a Whitehall position paper added some detail to Prime Minister Theresa May’s oft-repeated pledge to avoid a hardening of the border.

Resolving the challenges around the Irish border is one of three main “phase one” issues in the Brexit negotiations, along with citizens’ rights and the financial exit settlement.

"I find it difficult to accept that while the options available to the UK are now being discussed, debated and negotiated, that the potential option of staying in a customs union would be taken off the table, before negotiations on trade have even commenced with the EU," Mr Coveney told the British-Irish Association.

"There can be no hard border. Creativity and political will is needed to ensure that this does not happen," he added.

"There is an obvious solution, if we really value the peace and prosperity that has brought us this far. And that is for the UK to remain in an extended Customs Union and Single Market, or some version of that concept."

Earlier Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin said Northern Ireland and the border counties should be designated a "special economic zone" to help limit the damage of Brexit.

Mr Martin said: "Northern Ireland will not break out of a cycle of low incomes and poverty - in fact things will get worse - unless there is a move to address its structural problems.

"I believe the answer is the creation of a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Northern Ireland and at least the border counties in the South.

"This can be done while fully respecting the constitutional rights protected in the Good Friday Agreement and incorporated into both UK and Irish law."

Mr Martin said an SEZ could be recognised by the EU as being distinct from the rest of the UK in terms of Single Market and Customs Union access.

He pointed out that the terms of the Good Friday Agreement set Northern Ireland in an EU context.

"It should not be hard to design a mechanism for certifying that Northern Ireland businesses conform with EU standards relevant to market access.

"UK sovereignty would remain intact - in fact it is the UK government's official policy to support such zones in countries with structural development issues in defined regions," Mr Martin said.

He added: "There is a solution available to the economic threat to Northern Ireland from a Brexit vote passed solely on an English majority.

"It is a solution which has the potential to prioritise and kick-start long-delayed and urgently needed development in the most disadvantaged region of these islands."

Mr Coveney and Mr Martin also addressed the ongoing political deadlock at Stormont.

"It is imperative that an Executive in Northern Ireland is re-formed and the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are restored. There is no more time to wait", Mr Coveney said.

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