Belfast Telegraph

Scotland and N Ireland 'won't be able to attain special EU status post-Brexit'

Scotland and Northern Ireland will not be able to attain special EU status in the wake of Brexit, Theresa Villiers has insisted.

The Northern Ireland Secretary dismissed the suggestion that regions that backed a Remain vote could have a relationship with the EU distinct from England and Wales, where majorities favoured a UK exit.

While the referendum result has raised the prospect of another vote on Scottish independence and prompted Sinn Fein to demand a border poll on Irish unity, pro-Remainers in Scotland and Northern Ireland have also called for special measures to ensure their EU links are maintained, whatever the constitutional consequences of Brexit.

Ms Villiers, who campaigned for a Leave vote, said the UK would be treated as one nation in negotiations with the EU.

The Secretary of State was in Belfast for a day of talks on Brexit and other Northern Ireland-specific issues with the region's political leaders and Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan.

"EU rules are very clear, membership is at member state level," she said.

"It's a national question, it's not possible within EU rules to have a part of a country being part of the European Union.

"So this decision has been made, the people of the United Kingdom have voted to leave the European Union - that decision is going to be respected, that's what the Government will take forward."

Ms Villiers said "particular interests" in Northern Ireland, primarily the fact it shares a land border with an EU state, would need to be "protected" in the negotiations.

The Conservative MP again moved to allay fears expressed by communities on both sides of the Irish border that free movement of goods and people will be curtailed after Brexit.

"I believe we can keep a border which is as open and free-flowing as it is today," she said.

"I believe it is in the interests of both the UK and Irish governments to do that. It's clear both governments want to keep an open border. I believe, in those circumstances, it's going to be deliverable. It will take some common sense, it will take some negotiation, but it's not rational for the European Union to want to block something which is in the interests of one of its remaining member states - i.e. Ireland."

Under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord, the Secretary of State has the power to trigger a border poll if evidence emerges of a public opinion shift in support of changing Northern Ireland's constitutional status.

Ms Villiers has made clear that the referendum result has not changed her view that the criteria for calling a vote have not been met.

"This is the sort of matter that we keep constantly under review, as it's an element of the Belfast Agreement, but there isn't anything that indicates that there is a change of position," she said.

On other specific Northern Ireland issues, Ms Villiers said:

:: The Brexit result will not change the Treasury's stance that a forthcoming cut in corporation tax in the region will have to be paid for by the Stormont Executive. Current EU rules require the devolved region to foot the bill for the shortfall.

"The circumstances for devolution of corporation tax have been agreed and they don't change as a result of the Brexit vote," she said.

:: The Stormont Executive is likely to have the responsibility for allocating money to replace EU farm subsidies when the UK exits, as agriculture policy is a devolved matter.

"There's cross-party agreement that farm subsidies are essential and must continue and one would expect, given the way the current devolution settlement works, that Stormont would be in the driving seat in terms of allocating those farm subsidies, but these are things that must await the conclusion of the negotiation," she said.

In Northern Ireland, four of the five main political parties supported Remain - Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionists, the SDLP and Alliance party.

Earlier this week, representatives from the pro-Remain parties met to discuss the potential of putting forward a united front on the issue.

In Northern Ireland, 56% of people voted Remain. The situation is complicated by the fact that the two major partners in the ruling Stormont Executive - Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists - were on different sides of the debate.

Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness said the region had been left facing "enormous challenges" in the wake of the referendum vote.

"The number one priority given the nature of the decision that was taken last week is to ensure we maintain our relationship with Europe," he said.

"We see our future as being in Europe. That poses huge challenges for British government and Irish government."

Stormont First Minister Arlene Foster called on Remain campaigners to accept the decision and get on with the business of getting the "best deal" for Northern Ireland in the exit negotiations.

The DUP leader said she had no regrets about backing Brexit.

"The campaign is over, the decision has been taken, we now need to move on to create that stability that of course we all want to see here in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom," she said.

Mrs Foster claimed a lot of the fears about a UK exit from the EU had been "whipped up".

"It is regrettable that some parties have set their face against the decision of the United Kingdom electorate," she said.

"However, after a while they will realise that we have to get on and we have to do the things that we were elected to do and that is to represent the people of Northern Ireland."

She added: "I am certainly very focused on getting the best deal for Northern Ireland and I hope that others who are engaged, frankly, in campaigns that have already been fought, have already been decided, need to move on and get together and work for all the people of Northern Ireland."

At the close of the meetings, Mr Flanagan said they provided a welcome opportunity to discuss the outcome of the EU referendum result.

"I outlined the importance of us all working together in the best interests of the people on this island," he said.

"I reiterated the (Irish) government's commitment to the stability and prosperity of Northern Ireland and how we will seek to highlight the need for the EU to take account of the Northern Ireland dimension in upcoming negotiations in order to minimise any negative impact that may arise as a result."

Mr Flanagan insisted the Good Friday Agreement remained the "template" for political relationships on the island and between Ireland and the UK and said that had not been diminished by the vote.

"As a co-guarantor of the Good Friday and succeeding agreements, the Irish government is determined that its institutions, values and principles will be fully protected," he said.

He said the Irish government's "immediate strategy" was to sit down with the British Government and Northern Ireland Executive to "urgently discuss how collectively we are together going to protect the gains of the last decades and to prevent the worst effects of a UK departure from the EU".

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