Northern Ireland 'perhaps most vulnerable to bad Brexit deal', warns Coveney
Northern Ireland is potentially the part of Europe most vulnerable to the impact of a bad Brexit deal, the foreign minister has warned.
Newly-appointed Simon Coveney stressed the importance of getting an agreement that reflected the region's circumstances as he took part in talks to restore powersharing at Stormont.
Mr Coveney said the start of Brexit negotiations in Brussels underlined the urgent need to get devolution back up and running in Belfast.
"I think it's fair to say that Northern Ireland is perhaps the most vulnerable part of Europe to a bad Brexit deal should that happen," he said.
Mr Coveney said he would highlight the particular issues facing Northern Ireland - in regard to the peace process and cross-border movement - when he met the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier in Luxembourg on Tuesday.
But he said those arguments also needed to be made by a serving first and deputy first minister at Stormont.
"I think there is a sense of urgency here that Northern Ireland needs its own voice, in the context of Brexit in particular, as well as so many other issues that need to be resolved, and that without that voice people in Northern Ireland will be disadvantaged in a major way and will be essentially relying on others to make the case for them," he said.
Mr Coveney met all the five main political parties and Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire in what was his first involvement in the process since replacing Charlie Flanagan at the head of the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin last week.
The participants have until June 29 to reach a deal that would see devolution returned or they face the prospect of direct rule being reimposed from Westminster.
Mr Coveney said a number of "core issues" still stand in the way of an agreement but he said he did not consider them "insurmountable".
"All of the messaging I am getting is people are up for a deal," he said.
The minister said it was important that any deal involved all five Stormont parties, and not just the DUP and Sinn Fein.
The talks take place in the context of the ongoing negotiations between UK Prime Minister Theresa May and the DUP to strike a parliamentary deal to support her minority Government.
The anticipated arrangement has forced the UK government to reject suggestions its commitment to act with impartiality in Northern Ireland - as set out in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement - will be fatally undermined by any pact with the DUP.
Northern Ireland has been without a powersharing Executive since March and without a first and deputy first minister since January.
The institutions collapsed amid a bitter row between the DUP and Sinn Fein about a botched green energy scheme.
Senior DUP representative and former Stormont minister Simon Hamilton also struck a positive tone during a day that saw the first round table plenary session of a talks process that started last week.
"There have been positive engagements today between ourselves and Sinn Fein," he said.
"I think we will continue to work away on that to try to deliver devolution, to get devolution back up and running again for the people of Northern Ireland so we can deliver for them on the issues of health, education, jobs and the economy."
He added: "We see no reason why devolution and the executive can't be up and running now."
Asked if his party favoured a hard or soft Brexit, Mr Hamilton said the preference was for a "sensible Brexit".
Sinn Fein's Stormont leader, Michelle O'Neill, said her party was up for striking a deal.
"I can tell you, we are here wanting to find a deal, wanting to make the institutions work, wanting to deliver good public services, wanting to afford people their rights, wanting to deal with the issue of Brexit, but it has to be done on the basis of equality, respect and integrity in government," she said.
Asked if the Brexit process increased the pressure on her party to re-establish an Executive, Mrs O'Neill said Sinn Fein was already making the case across Europe for Northern Ireland to retain special designated EU status.
"Clearly the DUP are on the wrong side of the argument, cosying up alongside the Tory Government who are disrespecting the mandate of the people here, who asked to remain within the European Union," she added.