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MPs clash over border concerns in wake of Brexit

Published 19/07/2016

The SDLP's Dr Alasdair McDonnell warned that the uncertainty about the border could erode the fragile political settlement
The SDLP's Dr Alasdair McDonnell warned that the uncertainty about the border could erode the fragile political settlement
Taoiseach Enda Kenny said EU/UK negotiations should factor in the possibility that a border poll could be held in years to come

MPs have clashed over fears about Northern Ireland's border with the Republic of Ireland in the wake of the vote to leave the EU.

The SDLP's Dr Alasdair McDonnell warned that the uncertainty about the border could erode the fragile political settlement and lead to renewed dissident and paramilitary activity.

Shadow Northern Ireland minister Stephen Pound insisted that a Brexit would result in a "division" between the two countries.

But DUP MP Sammy Wilson said concerns about border controls were just another scare story "without any substance".

In a Westminster Hall debate in Parliament, Dr McDonnell stressed the need for the UK Government to guarantee at least one Northern Ireland representative at the Brexit negotiating table.

Northern Ireland may also have to make "common cause" with Scotland and Gibraltar, whose populations also voted to remain with the EU, he added.

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The Belfast South MP said: "I believe that Northern Ireland's interests cannot receive the full recognition or the full protection they deserve unless Northern Ireland has at least one, preferably two, seats at the negotiating table as we go forward."

He added: "Further uncertainty around what the border will look like in 10 years' time leaves us vulnerable to those that will seek to take advantage of that uncertainty and weakened state, including dissident and other paramilitaries.

"And I don't make that as a threat - I make that as an observation."

Labour's Mr Pound, a pro-Remain campaigner, said the Government must accept the "dark clouds over Northern Ireland".

He said: "If anyone thinks for a moment that the history of Ireland somehow means that there will not be a hard border, a soft border, a customs border, a tariff border, a physical border - there will be a border.

"There cannot be a negotiation when one party has decided to leave the relationship. That is the reality."

But Mr Wilson said there had so far been no political appetite for new border controls.

The East Antrim MP said: "This is one of the scare stories that was used by those who have tried to persuade people in Northern Ireland that leaving the EU is not in their interests.

"Again we have heard the same rhetoric but there is not substance to it.

"The Irish Government has said they do not wish to have border controls, the British government has said they do not wish to have border controls, the Northern Ireland Assembly has said they don't wish to have border controls and we already have seen through history how the common travel area has worked effectively to ensure that there is no need for border controls."

Home Office Minister Robert Goodwill said the UK and the Republic of Ireland share a common objective of preserving the common travel area and avoiding a hard border.

He said: "It has been agreed that the UK and Ireland would work together on priority areas within the British-Irish relationship in the forthcoming negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the EU.

"The Government will ensure the interests of all parts of the UK are protected."

On Monday Taoiseach Enda Kenny called on the EU to prepare for the prospect of Northern Ireland seeking to join the Republic.

The Fine Gael leader said a future border poll was now possible in light of the decision by Britain to leave the EU.

And Mr Kenny even likened it to West and East Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"The discussion and negotiations that take place over the next period should take into account the possibility, however far out it might be, that the clause in the Good Friday Agreement might be triggered," he said, "in that if there is a clear evidence of a majority of people wishing to leave the United Kingdom and join the Republic, that should be catered for in the discussions.

"Because if that possibility were to happen, you would have Northern Ireland wishing to leave the United Kingdom, not being a member of the European Union, and joining the Republic, which will be a member of the EU."

The Taoiseach made the remarks to reporters following his speech at the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Donegal.

He alluded to the prospect of a border poll during off-script comments and agreed to clarify the remarks afterwards.

The Taoiseach told an audience that the North-South trade links were more important in terms of volume to the North, which would suggest an appetite for such a vote there.

Mr Kenny also suggested that the Common Travel Area had a "legal status" and officials were working to clarify this.

He later said there had once been the view that it would "impossible" for Britain to leave the EU but this had now been thrown on its head. The Taoiseach said the matter of a border poll must now be considered in negotiations on Brexit.

"So in the same way as East Germany was dealt with when the wall came down, was able to be absorbed into West Germany and not to have to have to go through a torturous and long process of applying for membership of the European Union," the Taoiseach said.

"So when Northern Ireland voted to stay (in the EU), who knows what might happen in the time ahead? I am just making the point that these are the kinds of things that should be looked at in the broadest of ways in discussions that take place.

"People said it would be impossible that Britain would leave the European Union; that has taken place now."

He said discussions would take place about the "connections between the Republic and Northern Ireland, between Northern Ireland and the UK and the EU and our relationship with both" and "these are things that should be looked at in the context that they might happen in some time in the future".

The decision by Mr Kenny to throw open the prospect to a border poll will set him on a collision course with the DUP.

A fortnight ago, Mr Kenny was left humiliated after the Government's attempts to establish an all-island forum was shot down by First Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster.

The newly appointed Secretary of State to Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, has also ruled out a border poll.

Sinn Féin has embarked on a campaign to have such a vote, but Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said a vote was unlikely in the near future.

Earlier, Mr Kenny said a second secretary-general in the Department of An Taoiseach would be appointed to deal with the Brexit talks.

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