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Hain blasts government flip-flop on Northern Ireland staying in customs union

By Jonathan Bell

A former Northern Ireland Secretary of State has said government ministers are in chaos over Brexit and how to deal with the question of the border in Ireland.

His comments come after a UK government spokesman said Northern Ireland staying within the EU customs union was a "matter for negotiations" - only for sources to later dismiss the suggestion, saying the government's position had not changed.  

Theresa May and her government are facing intense pressure to come up with a solution on maintaining arrangements in Ireland without imposing a "hard border".

It is one of the key issues alongside the divorce bill and the rights of EU nationals living in the UK in the first stage of the Brexit talks. Both sides have stressed they are in favour of avoiding any change to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic - but the EU is insisting it is the UK's responsibility to find a solution that works.

But a spokesman for the Prime Minister muddied the waters on Friday.

Asked if Northern Ireland could stay in the customs union after Brexit, Ms May's official spokesman said: "I think that is a matter for negotiations.

"Our position on Northern Ireland has been set out in the papers and we need to continue to negotiate to find an innovative way forward."

However a Downing Street source later insisted that the Government's position that the whole of the UK will leave both the customs union and single market after Brexit has not changed.

Former Northern Ireland secretary of state Lord Peter Hain said the government must reconsider and ensure the entire UK stays within the customs union.

“Another day, another dose of confusion about the Government’s position on Ireland. It looks like the policy of potentially keeping Northern Ireland in the Customs Union has lasted the best part of forty minutes," he said.

“Ministers are in such chaos because their position is so impossible and illogical. They want a totally open border in Ireland and the continuation of the common travel area, while leaving the customs union and ending free movement. The circle cannot be squared.

“The bottom line must be that nothing should be done that jeopardises peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland, or that weakens the bonds between Ireland and the United Kingdom. That means the government must change course and negotiate to keep the whole of the UK in the customs union.”

Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said it was difficult to see how border checks could be avoided if the UK's departure from the customs union and single market resulted in "regulatory divergence" between Northern Ireland and the Republic. He has insisted there will be no progress to phase two of the talks on trade until the border issue was resolved.

However, DUP leader Arlene Foster fired off a warning about placing any border in the Irish sea and accused the Irish government of pushing for how a united Ireland would look in the future.

The Prime Minister, who was in Brussels for a meeting of the EU said "we have the same desire - we want to ensure that movement of people and trade across that border can carry on as now".

"That's the outcome that we are both agreed on and that is what we believe is in the best interests of Northern Ireland."

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