'Hard border' fears grow as PM sets out Brexit plan
Fears of a future 'hard border' with the Irish Republic have grown after Theresa May made clear Brexit will mean a comprehensive departure from the European Union.
In her first strategic overview of at least two years of negotiations ahead, the Prime Minister said the 'common travel area' between Northern Ireland and the Republic would remain a priority.
As the Brexit battle returned to the political centre-stage, there was also criticism of Stormont's Executive for failing to prepare a better plan to tackle the implications.
It came as new Revenue and Customs data revealed that more than half of Northern Ireland's exports went to the EU last year - trade that was worth £3 billion.
The DUP welcomed the reassurance that Britain will leave the single market, and pledged to provide support from its nine MPs for the Government to press ahead with Brexit. DUP MP Sammy Wilson, who sits on Westminster's Brexit committee, said the PM's statement would give the business community more certainty, and welcomed the plan for a Free Trade Agreement with the EU.
"Here in Northern Ireland we will also maintain the Common Travel Area with the Republic. Sinn Fein and others complain that her statement will mean a hard border; however, they now have no input as a result of bringing the Assembly down," he said.
The East Antrim MP added: "The DUP is committed to helping the Government in their Brexit plans and negotiations. We are well placed to do so."
But in a barrage of attacks from Dublin, Belfast and Strasbourg, Sinn Fein insisted Mrs May's soft words still amounted to a 'hard' Brexit. In Dublin, party president Gerry Adams said: "The British Prime Minister provided no new information about Britain's approach to the North in respect of Brexit; no willingness to look at a special designated status for the North within the EU (and) no real role for the devolved governments.
"Her commitment to remove Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights will have profound implications for the Good Friday Agreement. The role of the European Court and Convention are fundamental to the human rights elements of the Agreement."
Sinn Fein MLA John O'Dowd said that "soft words from Theresa May mean nothing" and, ahead of another meeting of Joint Ministerial Council on Brexit on Thursday - to which an Executive Minister is expected to be invited - Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson warned in Strasbourg: "A very hard Brexit will be a disaster for the north of Ireland.
"The freedom of movement of people and goods across Ireland is an absolute necessity."
Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson said: "In negotiating our departure from the single market, the Prime Minister needs to ensure that we will not fall victim to punitive tariffs.
"Similarly, a bespoke customs agreement needs to be reached to allow goods to move freely across the border. We do not want to go back to the days of lorries queuing up on either side of the border due to customs checks."
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood argued: "No free trade and customs across the island means a hard Brexit in Ireland. It means a hard border. If the British Government can negotiate special arrangements on the common travel area, they can negotiate special arrangements for trade and customs."
Alliance deputy leader Stephen Farry said it could be catastrophic for Northern Ireland because any departure from the customs union and the single market will necessitate a formal border, either across the island of Ireland or down the Irish Sea.