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Brexit begins: Republic 'must work with UK to win best deal for Northern Ireland'

By Margaret Canning

Ireland should align itself more closely with the UK in Brexit negotiations to secure the best deal for Northern Ireland, it has been claimed. Nine months on from the referendum, the reality of the UK leaving the EU began to dawn after the Prime Minister triggered Article 50 yesterday.

Irish economist David McWilliams said he expected the Republic would "break away" from the other 26 member states as negotiations progress.

Ahead of an event in Belfast last night hosted by stockbrokers Brewin Dolphin, Mr McWilliams said: "I think what you'll find is that the Republic's Government will break from the EU at some stage and begin dealing directly with London over the North."

This, he believes, is to secure both Northern Ireland's interests and its own €1bn trade per week with Britain.

The columnist, who last year predicted a narrow win for Leave with ensuing calls for a second independence referendum in Scotland, said the "optics" would be important.

"You send your Tanaiste (deputy prime minister) and your foreign minister for talks with the British," he added. "The EU may say such talks are not legally binding, but we will say, 'This is far too important for us to be left to anybody in Brussels. Even though we trust you, we need to be a party to this.'"

Ultimately, he said, the Republic should insist on holding a referendum on the terms of a deal between the EU and UK.

"It should say, 'We're going to have a referendum on these talks unless you take our concerns seriously as Brexit is uniquely destabilising'," he added.

"By doing that, you make it political - and that focuses minds in Brussels."

Mr McWilliams said he did not believe the EU would wish to impose a hard border.

"The British will say they don't want a hard border, as will Ireland. So in that case, who will police it?

"Our countries are still sovereign and the EU isn't as strong as we think it is."

He believes that both sides of negotiations will be conflicted over their timescale.

"The British want to wrap everything up in two years, but the EU wants to prolong it as long as possible so that the British panic towards the end."

Meanwhile, Glyn Roberts, chief executive of lobby group Retail NI, said having an operational Executive was crucial to Northern Ireland's position as Brexit negotiations begin.

He said that once it is back up and running, the Assembly should establish a Brexit committee to discuss how to manage Brexit and ensure Northern Ireland's voice is heard.

He said: "Triggering Article 50 is the start of a huge process of economic, social and political change for Northern Ireland, and it remains to be seen if this change will be positive for our local economy.

"Certainly, leaving the single market and customs union is neither positive for our retail sector or local economy as a whole".

Angela McGowan, regional director of the CBI in Northern Ireland, said early wins in the negotiations would be crucial, including a guarantee of right to remain for EU citizens here and UK nationals in Europe.

She added: "Meanwhile, we must work constructively to design a means to maintain some influence over regulations affecting local businesses in our biggest market. And discussing new trading arrangements should go hand-in-hand with negotiating the UK's exit from the EU."

Belfast Telegraph