The Irish deputy leader has ruled out reform of the Stormont petition of concern as a path to accepting the Prime Minister’s Brexit plan.
Boris Johnson wants to give the currently defunct Northern Ireland Assembly a vote both on whether to opt into the all-island regulatory system in 2021, and whether to remain in it after an initial four-year period.
The petition of concern essentially allows a bloc of Assembly Members from either the nationalist or the unionist community a veto on certain decisions, even if they represent a minority in the chamber.
On Friday morning, Simon Coveney rejected the idea that reforming the veto power would make any difference, as this decision lies with the EU and UK, not Northern Ireland.
“We have concerns in relation to any concept that suggests one party in Northern Ireland, regardless of who they are, can veto or prevent contingency measures taking effect through a vote in the NI executive,” he said.
“The idea that a minority of people could enforce a proposal on a majority of people indefinitely into the future in the context of the disruption of Brexit and mitigate against that isn’t something we can support.
“We need to be clear here, mechanisms that are linked to cross community support in the executive are primarily about issues of competence for the executive on domestic decision making in Northern Ireland.
“This is very different, this is the UK as a whole and the EU as a whole, to deal with an international border question.
“The issues around the Petition of Concern are important issues, but in terms of Brexit outcome and a deal, when you look at the response in Northern Ireland yesterday, there’s only one party in Northern Ireland supporting Boris Johnson’s proposals as the basis of deal, no one else is, because there’s real problems with it.”
Earlier on Friday, Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith suggested reform of the petition of concern could be “helpful” in addressing the EU’s concerns about handing the DUP a veto over post-Brexit arrangements.
Mr Coveney added that he is not interested in getting into a personalised war of words with the leader of the DUP over Brexit.
DUP leader Arlene Foster accused the Irish Government of trying to ride roughshod over unionism, as she criticised Dublin’s rejection of the UK’s latest Brexit plan on Thursday.
Mr Coveney said he would not be getting into a personalised row, and that Ireland’s position had not changed.
“I’m not getting into personalised commentary like that, the Irish government has been consistent for three years now, while we respect the decision of the UK to leave the EU, we also expect the British government would take account of Irish interest, vulnerabilities and exposure and the context of those issue of any Brexit deal that is struck,” Mr Coveney said.
“We now have a Prime Minister that wants to remove the backstop and we have said if he wants to do that he has to come up with an alternative that does the same job.
“The British government gave in writing in 2017 that they would ensure during the Brexit process and after it, that the all island economy would be protected and that no border infrastructure would remerge.
“That’s the test for us, and regardless of what individual politicians say, what party they belong to, we’re not interested in personalities, quite frankly, we’re interested in the outcomes and the issues and that continues to be our focus.”
Mr Coveney added Boris Johnson’s proposals are a “step in the right direction, but there are problems with the proposal, and we have to be up front and honest about that, there’s no point pretending problems are being solved when they’re not, particularly when it comes to customs”.
“We don’t see how the proposal to have two different customs territories on the island of Ireland can avoid customs checks between those territories, we don’t see how that works and the EU has the same concern, so that element of the proposal needs to be developed further,” he added.
Mr Coveney says by listening to the people who spoke out yesterday against Mr Johnson’s plans, it would be clear that many unionists in Northern Ireland do not support the proposal around customs.
“Lots of unionists have difficulty with that, whether it’s the head of the Belfast Chamber of Commerce, the head of the Ulster Farmers’ Union, the CBI, virtually every business organisation in Northern Ireland, most of them headed by unionists, let’s be honest, don’t think that this is a comprehensive enough proposal to ensure we maintain borderless trade on this island.”