Belfast Telegraph

Brexit secretary Raab visiting Irish border 'like thief in the night,' says MP Hazzard

Brexit Secretary Raab on 'fact-finding' flying visit

Dominic Raab with Colm Shannon of Newry Chamber of Trade.
Dominic Raab with Colm Shannon of Newry Chamber of Trade.
Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab (Aaron Chown/PA)

By Rebecca Black,PA and Jonathan Bell

The Brexit secretary Dominic Raab is in Northern Ireland on a "fact-finding" trip to the border, drawing criticism for his refusal to meet with politicians, business representatives and some members of the Press.

Sinn Fein accused the minister of "coming like a thief in the night". His office said he had a packed schedule meaning he could not meet everyone.

The secretary of state has travelled to Warrenpoint to meet with politicians and business representatives, a spokeswoman said. The port, on Carlingford Lough which forms part of the Irish border, ranks second in Northern Ireland behind Belfast in terms of tonnes handled in 2017.

In a private engagement closed to media, Mr Raab met workers in the port.

His office has said his schedule is packed and as such only has the time for broadcasters the BBC and UTV. The Press Association was briefly allowed to take part in the Warrenpoint port visit until it was realised their reporter was from the media.

South Down MP Chris Hazzard said he too was not given the opportunity to engage with Mr Raab. He accused Mr Raab of "coming in like a thief in the night".

"We have some serious concerns around Brexit, the local community here are very anxious, the local business community are very anxious about what the next number of months and years is going to hold for them," he said

"The fact we have yet again another Tory minister not providing an opportunity to meet and engage and listen to those concerns is absolutely unacceptable.

We simply do not have the ability to absorb cost rises because of Brexit. NI Retail Consortium

"Dominic Raab is like a thief in the night coming in and out, not providing opportunity, not just me personally but the people I represent, and the media should have the opportunity to be able to ask the hard questions. The fact the Tories run away from this every time is telling in itself."

He did meet with the chief executive of Newry Chamber of Trade and Commerce who highlighted the importance of an open border to trade.

“The Greater Newry Area is a region that has been transformed from one of high unemployment in the late 1980s to virtual full employment today," said Colm Shannon.

"Peace, an open border and access to markets has contributed greatly to that prosperity.

"The port handles approximately a 1,000 ships per year and 40% of the freight originates in or is delivered to the south of Ireland. An open border and freedom to trade east west are essential for this trade to continue," said Colm Shannon.

"Key concerns included supply and access to labour and raw materials, regulation of products, no delays at borders or ports and the maintenance of existing trade North- South and East -West.

SDLP South Down MLA Sinead Bradley also criticised Mr Raab's lack of engagement with local elected representatives as "disgraceful".

"Brexit will affect rural communities and especially border communities the most," she said.

"For the Brexit Secretary to visit and essentially adopt the attitude of 'we will talk about you but not to you' really just amplified the attitude that has been used by this Executive and the Tory government. It's absolutely disgraceful and must be called out."

The Department for Exiting the EU has been asked for a comment.

After leaving the port, Mr Raab visited with senior officers at Newry police station.

Mr Raab will later go to Stormont and meet the political parties. His office described the visit as a "fact-finding" exercise.

It comes amid reports the EU is preparing to offer a compromise on the Irish border issue, which has become the major sticking point in the Brexit talks.

Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has outlined plans to offer Prime Minister Theresa May a UK-wide customs arrangement while a new trade deal is being negotiated.

Mr Raab's visit is his  first since he was appointed to the ministry in July after predecessor David Davis resigned.

Sky News Ireland correspondent David Blevins asked why cabinet ministers "sneak to and from the border" without facing questions from journalists.

Aodhan Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, also expressed his frustration at not meeting Mr Raab.

"We would have loved to have asked him about how NI consumers are going to better off in the short term or the medium term," he said, "because we simply do not have the ability to absorb cost rises because of Brexit.

"Questions have to be asked if he is only meeting reps who play to his narrative. Not acceptable."

Mr Raab's office said he had a packed schedule and would only be able to accommodate broadcasters UTV and BBC for "clips". A spokeswoman also said there would be no availability for the Belfast Telegraph to pose questions to the minister.

David Davis also did not meet the media when he visited the border for the first time in April.

The issue of the Irish border has become the major sticking point in the Brexit talks.

The EU wants a backstop which would see Northern Ireland remain in the EU customs union and part of the single market in order to avoid creating infrastructure on the border. However, the Prime Minister has rejected this arguing a sea border would harm the integrity of the UK.

Mr Raab has indicated he expects a deal to be reached with the EU by the end of the month.

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