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Coveney calls for efforts to fix Anglo-Irish relationships damaged by Brexit

Irish regret UK leaving but respect that decision, says Tanaiste on Belfast visit

Tanaiste Simon Coveney with Simon Hamilton speaking at Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce’s annual lunch
Tanaiste Simon Coveney with Simon Hamilton speaking at Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce’s annual lunch

By Lisa Smyth

The Irish government regrets the impact that Brexit negotiations have had on relations between Dublin and unionism, the Tanaiste has said.

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Simon Coveney said efforts must now be made to urgently repair the damage caused to UK-Irish relationships as a result of Brexit.

He was speaking at an event in south Belfast yesterday on his first official visit to Northern Ireland since Prime Minister Boris Johnson revealed details of the proposed Brexit deal with the EU.

Mr Coveney said in his speech at the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce's annual lunch that the Irish government does not dismiss "genuinely held fears" of any community, including unionists.

However, as he left the event, he declined to explain what he and the Irish government will do to allay those fears.

Addressing hundreds of members of the Belfast Chamber, Mr Coveney said: "This is another week of political drama, but also of very real anxiety and uncertainty.

"Therefore, I would like to take the opportunity to set out for you the position of the Irish government on the EU-UK agreement reached last week.

"Firstly, we feel deep regret that the UK is leaving the EU, but we fully accept and respect that decision. That is, and has always been, a sovereign decision of the United Kingdom.

"Secondly, we feel deep concern at the uncertainty and anxiety which the Brexit decision, and the protracted Brexit negotiations, have given rise to in Northern Ireland and across this island over these past few difficult years.

"And thirdly, we feel a sense of relief - although so far only tentative relief - that an agreement has been reached between the UK Government and the European Union which, if ratified, will avert a no-deal and all its chaotic consequences.

"We have always known there is no Brexit solution that does not involve some compromise; but we have not, and will not, dismiss the genuinely-held fears and concerns of any community in Northern Ireland.

"And I very much include members of the unionist community in that regard."

Referring to the negative impact of Brexit, Mr Coveney said "it has been a cause of genuine regret and concern for us".

He continued: "It is incumbent on all of us to do what we can collectively to repair those relationships - urgently, and in a spirit of generosity and goodwill.

"For our part, we are determined - once we all can finally move on from this chapter - to rebuild, strengthen and energise relationships North-South and East-West, for the benefit of all our businesses, and all our people."

Speaking later in a question and answer session, Mr Coveney also said he believes that firms from the Republic will relocate or set up a base in Northern Ireland in the wake of Brexit.

"In time, when the politics of this settles down, business leaders will start to look at this for what it really is - which is an extraordinary business opportunity," he said.

"I think there will be a huge incentive for a lot of Irish companies to locate north of the border and to effectively operate the rules of the single market but at the same time have unfettered access to the UK."

Meanwhile, Belfast Chamber chief executive Simon Hamilton reiterated the importance of a deal between the EU and the UK.

The former DUP finance minister said business in Northern Ireland will continue to be adversely affected while the details of Brexit remain unclear.

The DUP has voiced serious concerns over Mr Johnson's proposed deal and the party's MPs have voted with Labour and other opposition parties to block the Government's timetable to pass key Brexit legislation.

Concerns have also been raised that the plan could lead to a downturn in local trade and investment.

Mr Hamilton acknowledged the proposed deal is "not perfect", but continued: "A deal is better than no deal.

"The high drama of the politicians is just going on and on and on and people just want a decision to be made now.

"What business requires is stability and certainty and at the moment, that isn't there.

"There are still so many things up in the air and the situation changes constantly and it's difficult to say whether this current deal is better or worse at Theresa May's deal.

"Our members want clarification around certain points but we have given it a cautious welcome for now."

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