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Dublin fears RHI scandal could have Brexit side-effects

There is growing concern within the Irish Cabinet that the political chaos in Northern Ireland will scupper the prospect of a soft Brexit.

As Stormont remained gripped by crisis last night, ministers in Dublin fear the instability will hamper attempts at securing the best possible deal for the Republic.

Sources at both Cabinet and official level warned that fresh elections in Northern could lead to a prolonged period in which control is transferred back to Westminster.

Direct rule would damage efforts to prevent a so-called hard Brexit, sources revealed.

"The last thing we now need is confusion spreading to the UK and across Europe about what Ireland is looking for," said one senior figure directly involved in devising Dublin's Brexit strategy.

The row involving First Minister Arlene Foster and her role in the 'cash for ash' scandal has brought the Executive to the brink.

Central to Ireland's objectives ahead of the post-Brexit negotiations is ensuring there is no return to a hard border, that the Common Travel Area remains in place, and that the peace process is respected.

But ministers fear that if there is no Stormont administration, the Republic's hand in the talks will be weakened.

"All of a sudden, we could be put on the back foot in terms of securing the best possible deal for Ireland," one Cabinet source said.

Senior ministers are in constant contact with their counterparts in Northern Ireland as the crunch Brexit negotiations edge closer.

It's understood Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan has been receiving briefings on the situation since the crisis escalated this week.

Last night Mr Flanagan said it was important the institutions in Northern Ireland continued to function.

"While the Renewable Heat Incentive issue is entirely a matter for the devolved Executive and Assembly, it is clearly important that the political institutions continue to function as provided for by the Good Friday Agreement.

"As a co-guarantor of that Agreement, the Irish Government is firmly committed to the effective operation of all of the institutions and that commitment remains constant," Mr Flanagan said.

The minister reiterated his call for Prime Minister Theresa May and her Government to outline their Brexit strategy as soon as possible.

"The (Irish) Government is continuing to ready itself to meet the Brexit challenge.

"Our preparations have been ongoing for well over two years.

"Our intensive planning continues at both political and official levels, and we are in constant dialogue with our EU partners," Mr Flanagan added.

Meanwhile, Irish European Affairs Minister Dara Murphy last night said any efforts must be taken to avoid instability in Northern Ireland.

"The vast majority of the areas of concern are shared between the people of North and South," Mr Murphy said.

"It is in everybody's interests for there to be as much stability as possible, given that there are so many shared interests," he added.

Mr Murphy pointed out that there was a lot of "goodwill" from other European countries towards the people of Ireland, both North and South.

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