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New Secretary of State 'doesn't want to see a return to border of the past'

As Villiers' replacement Brokenshire begins his first day in office, Deputy First Minister McGuinness admits he hadn't heard of him before his appointment

By Noel McAdam

New Secretary of State James Brokenshire has warned against any return of a "hard border" between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

On his first full day in office, the man who has replaced Theresa Villiers at the Northern Ireland Office also stressed it will be a key part of his role to "get the best deal" for Northern Ireland as the UK exits the European Union.

The MP who had wanted the country to remain in the EU - unlike Mrs Villiers who was a strong Brexit campaigner - is expected to make his first visit to the province as Secretary of State early next week.

And as the final touches to new Prime Minister Theresa May's Cabinet were being made yesterday, Martin McGuinness admitted he had never heard of Mr Brokenshire, a former Immigration Minister, before his appointment was announced on Thursday.

"But I always work on the basis that we have to play the hand we are dealt with," the Deputy First Minister said.

"He is the representative of the British government in relation to the position of Secretary of State and we will work with him, but it has to be on the recognition by both him and the Prime Minister that the people of the north voted to remain."

Mr McGuinness and First Minister Arlene Foster had separate telephone calls with Mr Brokenshire as well as Mrs May on Thursday.

Then Mr McGuinness underlined his argument that any hardening of the border would "gravely undermine" the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Brokenshire said: "We certainly don't want to see a return to the border of the past.

"We don't want to see that hard border coming into place and I think there is a real sense of commitment between the UK Government and also the Irish government to work together very closely so we don't see that returning."

During the referendum campaign, Mrs May had indicated she expected some form of border control would be required in Ireland if people in the UK voted to leave the EU.

But the new Secretary of State said the common travel area pre-dated UK membership of the common market and he had already held talks with Irish Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald.

"We now need to respect the view from across the United Kingdom that the UK should leave the EU and to get the best possible arrangements for Northern Ireland. That's the key part of my role," he told RTE.

On whether the millions of pounds of EU subsidies paid to Northern Ireland farmers will be maintained by Westminster in the aftermath of Brexit, Mr Brokenshire said ministers were "looking very closely" at the issue. And he said he believed that the rights of EU citizens living in the UK could be guaranteed after the country has left the European Union - but only if the rights of UK citizens living in the remaining EU member states were similarly respected.

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