Belfast Telegraph

BBC's Humphrys asks Dublin minister why Ireland doesn't dump EU and 'throw lot in' with UK

Helen McEntee
Helen McEntee
Jonathan Bell

By Jonathan Bell

Ireland's Europe minister dismissed a suggestion the Republic should leave the EU after she was asked - given the her economy's reliance on Britain for exports, revenue and jobs - why it didn't just "throw its lot in" with the UK.

Helen McEntee was questioned on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme on the current state of affairs on Brexit and on how a hard border could be avoided should the UK crash out of the EU at the end of March without a deal.

Veteran host John Humphrys put it to the minister that instead of Dublin saying the UK had to stay within the single market and customs union to avoid a hard border "there has to be an argument" for Ireland to instead leave the EU.

It was put to her that the Britain was "massively important" to Ireland in terms of the economy, "it accounts for 50% from the Republic, it's worth about 65billion euros a year and sustains over 400,000 jobs and so on," said Humphries.

"There has to be an argument doesn't there, that says instead of Dublin telling this country that we have to stay within the single market etc, within the customs union etc, why doesn't Dublin, why doesn't the Republic of Ireland leave the EU and throw in their lot with this country?"

We did not vote for Brexit, we don't believe in it.

Ms McEntee responded: "First I need to clarify some statistics. Maybe years ago our exports were at that figure 50% but now they are about 13/14%.... 33% of our market is the other 500m people in the rest of the European Union.

"We have spent 45 years working with the UK in developing the EU and a shared future for all of us. We don't want Brexit, we don't want the UK to leave because of that close relationship and partnership and what we are trying to do is to make sure that in that future relationship moving forward that we have that same close relationship.

"But obviously if the UK are insisting on leaving the single market and customs union it makes it that more difficult."

She added: "We want a deal and we want a withdrawal agreement we want to be able to work with the UK moving forward but to suggest that we should leave... 92% of Irish people last year said they wanted to remain in the EU and in fact since Brexit that figure has got bigger."

The minister said in the event of a no deal there was no plans for the reintroduction of a border.

"This is not an Irish policy this is not something we have voted on and this is something we have given a commitment to time and time again.

"And time and time again the Prime Minister and the UK Government have given a commitment that we must protect the peace process and certainly that seem to be something people didn't think about perhaps when they voted to leave the European Union but also to ensure that they we never return to a border on this island.

"So absolutely the UK will fulfill its commitment and live up to its obligations.

"Brexit or no Brexit the UK Government is a co-guarantor of what is an international treaty and integral to protecting that peace treaty is ensuring we never return to any kind of borders that we saw in the past.

"And all you have to do is open up the papers last weekend where we saw a car bomb going off in Derry. You only have to talk to people who lived through it in the very recent past to understand why it is we are trying to achieve this and why it is we we are trying to avoid going back to any of those scenes from the past."

We are protecting a peace process.

She said diplomats in Brussels had been clear on ensuring there was no border in Ireland and it was the UK's red lines which had brought about the current position about. She also said she did not accept the backstop was the sole reason for Theresa May's Commons defeat on the withdrawal agreement. She said there were many differences in parliament between the type of Brexit wanted and indeed if the UK should leave the EU.

Ms McEntee stressed they never wanted the backstop to come into force but there was yet to be an alternative solution to be put forward from the UK.

The backstop would see the UK obeying EU customs rules if no wider trade agreement is settled after a transition period.

She told the BBC: "It is because of those red lines that a backstop is absolutely necessary.

"I think now, for some reason, the onus by the UK has been shifted back on Ireland. That we should compromise. That we are the ones that are trying to be awkward or difficult."

Any suggestion the UK can walk away we just can't accept

She continued: "We did not vote for Brexit, we don't believe in it we absolutely respect that it was a democratic decision, we are protecting a peace process and this is not just from an Irish point of view. There is an obligation on the UK to ensure the peace process and Good Friday Agreement is protected.  Any suggestion they can walk away we just can't accept."

Jonathan Powell - Tony Blair's former chief of staff who played a part in the Good Friday Agreement talks was also asked if there was a possibility of Ireland "leaving Brussells".

He said there was "no hope" as the country owed much of its prosperity both before the collapse of the Celtic Tiger and through its recovery to the European Union.

Tory MP Andrew Murrison, who has tabled a Commons amendment requiring the backstop to be "replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border", called for movement from Dublin.

Referring to the current backstop proposal, he said: "The crucial thing here is it's not for a period of time - it doesn't allow us to get out after a while - it's potentially forever. And that's the problem.

"And that's why my amendment would seek to put a sunset, as it were, on that part of the agreement."

He added that limiting it to five years could work, stating: "The Polish foreign minister, very helpfully, suggested five years. That seems not entirely unreasonable to me."

Mr Murrison added: "Dublin needs to understand that if Brexit goes wrong then the UK will not prosper. But the effects in the Republic are going to probably be even worse.

"So, it is in all of our interests to make sure that what happens is good for us all, including the European Union.

"That means getting this deal over the line."

Meanwhile, Cabinet tensions over the prospect of a no-deal Brexit broke into the open again as the Government floated the idea of delaying the UK's withdrawal from the EU.

Justice Secretary David Gauke insisted quitting the bloc without an agreement would be "pretty disastrous" after Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom said ministers should back Theresa May's stance of leaving the option on the table.

Mr Gauke also suggested that he backed MPs being given a free vote on some Brexit issues.

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