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We'll work to avoid a hard border, says EU envoy Barnier

By Cate McCurry

Europe's Brexit negotiator yesterday said he hoped to visit Northern Ireland as part of EU talks.

During a two-day trip to the Irish Republic, Michel Barnier said there was no reason why the European Union could not have a "strong relationship" with the UK after it leaves - but Brexit will inevitably have consequences.

He declared he had "a duty to speak the truth".

"Customs controls are part of EU border management," Mr Barnier said. "They protect the single market. They protect our food safety and our standards."

While the diplomat will visit the border to see where Brexit will be most keenly felt, he confirmed he would not make an official visit to Northern Ireland.

A spokeswoman for the EU Commission said Mr Barnier was not invited here, but added that he "hopes" to visit in the future.

"Mr Barnier has a very busy schedule and only had time to visit Dublin and the border region this time, but he hopes to visit Northern Ireland at some point in the future," the spokeswoman explained.

In a historic address to the Oireachtas - both Irish houses of parliament - Mr Barnier said: "European integration helped to remove borders that once existed on maps and in minds. Brexit changes the external borders of the EU. I will work with you to avoid a hard border."

Addressing both the Dail and Seanad has been a privilege previously afforded only to visiting heads of State and prime ministers, and Mr Barnier joins luminaries such as Nelson Mandela and Bill Clinton in doing so.

He said Brexit would "come at a cost" to both the UK and the remaining 27 members of the EU, but his objective was to reach a "fair deal".

Today, he will travel to the border and meet farmers and workers in a dairy co-operative. "In Northern Ireland, lifting the borders took time," Mr Barnier said.

"Only 15 years ago did checkpoints and controls totally disappear.

"Thanks to the Good Friday Agreement, that ended decades of violence."

He also stressed that he understood the EU's role in strengthening dialogue in Northern Ireland and supporting the 1998 agreement, which largely ended the violence.

Later, Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson called for a "deep and comprehensive deal" between the UK and the EU. But he added: "Mr Barnier does not have a mandate to negotiate Northern Ireland issues with politicians in the Republic.

"Of course, in the absence of a functioning Executive in Northern Ireland, I fear we risk losing our voice.

"Brussels needs to be fully aware of the fact that the Belfast Agreement cannot be cherry-picked.

"While nationalist politicians and others may be keen to use Brexit as an excuse to try to break up the UK, Northern Ireland will remain a full, integral part for as long as its people wish to remain so.

"This also means that any special status that puts a de facto border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain would risk breaking the agreement."

But Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams insisted that Northern Ireland should be afforded such a status.

"The economic implications of customs posts for the two economies on this island, and especially for the border communities, are enormous," he said.

Mr Adams also warned that Brexit put cross-border trade worth billions of pounds "at risk and with it the jobs of those exporters who may now face customs posts".

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood spoke to Mr Barnier during his visit about the need for a "special dispensation".

He said: "This island has strong allies in Europe. Where Theresa May has run a coach and horses through the delicate and complex circumstances in Northern Ireland, EU leaders have demonstrated an immense understanding of this place and a willingness to protect the progress we have made."

by cate mccurry

Belfast Telegraph

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