Brexit: Both sides say Northern Ireland to be a key part of negotiations

EU Council President Donald Tusk, right, gets British Prime Minister Theresa May's formal notice to leave the bloc from UK Permanent Representative to the EU Tim Barrow in Brussels. (Emmanuel Dunand, Pool via AP)

EU Council President Donald Tusk, right, gets British Prime Minister Theresa May's formal notice to leave the bloc from UK Permanent Representative to the EU Tim Barrow in Brussels. (Emmanuel Dunand, Pool via AP)

As the UK today formally began the two-year process of leaving the EU there were pledges from both sides that the Irish border will be a key element of the exit negotiations which are now set to begin.

This morning a letter from Prime Minister Theresa May was delivered to Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, which contained the words: “We are leaving the European Union”.

That letter, implementing the result of last June’s referendum, contained seven key points for the forthcoming negotiations, one of which is around the future of Northern Ireland and which stated: “We want to avoid a return to a hard [Irish] border”.

Mrs May also said that by leaving the EU she expected there to be a “significant increase in the decision-making power of each devolved administration”.

Just after the letter was delivered by hand in Brussels, Mrs May told the House of Commons: “This is an historic moment from which there can be no turning back”.

Tonight in Brussels a motion drawn up by the leaders of four political groups in the European Parliament which make up 525 of the 751 MEPs – a majority of whom must approve any final deal to take the UK out of the EU – set out their conditions for any such agreement.

The MEPs said that they were “especially concerned” about the consequences for Northern Ireland and that “the special circumstances confronting the island of Ireland must be addressed in the withdrawal agreement”.

They added that there was an “absolute need to...avoid the re-establishment of a hard border”.

Locally, the DUP, which campaigned for Brexit, welcomed today’s development as “a good day for the Union” and an important recognition of the referendum result. The DUP’s Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds, said: “We joined the European Union as a nation and we will leave together.”

But Sinn Fein attended a protest at Stormont at which a mock border was erected. Gerry Adams called for Northern Ireland to be given “special status within the EU”.