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Republic of Ireland needs to seek special status: Jim Nicholson

By Michael Sheils McNamee

Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson has said that the Republic of Ireland should "urgently seek special status".

He made the comments as part of a statement on the European Commission's paper on the post-Brexit border in Northern Ireland.

"Some in Dublin and Brussels would like to see the border moved to the Irish Sea. Not only would this have serious negative consequences for Northern Ireland’s economy, placing an international border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, it would also be a clear breach of the principle of consent and the Belfast Agreement that EU negotiators have pledged to protect," he said.

"It is becoming increasingly clear that the Republic of Ireland needs to urgently seek special status."

In July, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that his government "was not going to be helping" the UK design a border and that it was the UK's responsibility to "put forward their proposals as to how they think a border should operate".

There had also been reports that Taoiseach Varadkar was set to push for a sea border between the UK and Ireland, with customs checks being carried out at ports and airports.

He later ruled this out as a potential course of action.

Mr Nicholson was critical of the position laid out by the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. 

Speaking on Thursday, Mr Barnier warned that plans by the UK were unfair on Ireland, and were looking at Northern Ireland as a "test case" for future customs relations with the EU.

After Britain's exit Northern Ireland will be only part of the UK that will share a land border with the EU.

Mr Nicholson added that "neither Brussels nor Dublin speaks for Northern Ireland" and urged Mr Barnier and his colleagues "to start listening and stop cherry-picking elements of the Belfast Agreement".

"It is bizarre that, on the one hand, this paper says there must be a flexible solution that avoids a physical border, but on the other hand insists that it is only up to the UK Government to provide such a solution.

"Michel Barnier and his colleagues are sitting on their hands, which is a pathetic position to take given the issues at stake."

'Exerting pressure on the UK'

DUP MLA Diane Dodds said the European Commission's insistence that "responsibility for ensuring an open and seamless border after Brexit lies with the UK is unhelpful".

"Although this change in tone is disappointing, it would be foolish to view it as anything other than an effort to exert pressure on the UK negotiators as talks continue on wider aspects of the negotiations," she said.

"It is wrong that border issues and the genuine concerns held by those living and working in affected communities can be exploited in this way."

Mrs Dodds said that the UK government had laid out two proposals for how a post-Brexit border would work and that it would be beneficial for Brussels to engage with these as a starting point.

She also said that it was positive the Commission had welcomed the UK's plan to maintain the Common Travel Area.

Special status for Northern Ireland

Sinn Fein MLA John O'Dowd welcomed confirmation in the Commission's paper that the EU would be seeking special status for Northern Ireland.

"The paper recognises: the fundamental requirement to safeguard the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts including rights and north-south working, involves protection of cross-border co-operation, the Good Friday Agreement, and Irish membership of the European Customs Union," he said.

The Irish Department for Foreign Affairs has been contacted for comment.

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