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Keeping soft border on Ireland is 'red line' in Brexit negotiations, Lords told

Published 11/10/2016

The return of physical barriers between the north and south of the island of Ireland would be unacceptable, a Government minister has said
The return of physical barriers between the north and south of the island of Ireland would be unacceptable, a Government minister has said

Maintaining the soft border on the island of Ireland will be a "red line" in the UK's Brexit negotiations with Europe, a Government minister has said.

Robin Walker, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Exiting the European Union, said the return of physical barriers between north and south would be unacceptable.

Mr Walker was appearing before the House of Lords European Union Select Committee alongside Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire to discuss the Irish dimension of the Brexit process.

The MPs were questioned at length on the practicalities of maintaining the current open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland when it becomes the UK's only land frontier with the EU.

They both reiterated the desire to maintain the almost 100-year-old Common Travel Area agreement that allows free movement of people.

Mr Walker said: "There are very few areas if you think about it, some would argue too few, but there are very few areas where we have set out very clear red lines ahead of negotiations and this is one of them where we have been clear.

"This is so important that we want to put it right up front and we want to recognise that actually returning to the hard borders of the past wouldn't be an acceptable solution.

"So it's something we have been determined to put out there and the engagement will absolutely be there between our department between the NIO (Northern Ireland Office) and between the Republic of Ireland to make sure we can get to the right place on this."

Mr Brokenshire said the UK and Irish governments had a shared position on the importance of preserving the current border arrangements.

He said the Northern Ireland dimension would feature significantly in the UK's negotiations with the EU.

"We are looking at a UK wide negotiation here, and that's the important thing to stress, but within that there will be specific factors that will be relevant to Northern Ireland because of the nature of having the land border with the Republic of Ireland," he said.

Attention has focused on remarks the Secretary of State made to the Guardian earlier this week when he indicated one way to maintain a soft border would be to bolster controls around the whole island of Ireland.

The comments led to speculation the UK was planning to rely on beefed-up security at entry points in the Irish Republic to combat post-Brexit illegal immigration through Northern Ireland.

Mr Brokenshire stressed to the committee no final decisions had been made on how to control migration in the context of an open Irish border.

He highlighted the importance of the Irish Republic remaining outside of the Schengen area that operates in the rest of the EU - meaning travellers still had to show passports at border controls.

The majority of voters in Northern Ireland (56%) voted for the UK to remain within the EU in June's referendum.

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