First Minister Arlene Foster has given an assurance that there will be no post-Brexit passport control between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
In an interview with the News Letter, the DUP leader outlined a categorical position on what has been one of the most controversial possibilities thrown up by the UK leaving the EU.
Earlier this year, the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, had floated the possibility of passport checks at Scottish ferry terminals, a comment which deeply alarmed some unionists as it would have meant them not being able to travel freely within their own country.
At the time, Mr Cameron’s then Secretary of State, the pro-Brexit Theresa Villiers, told the News Letter that such a move would be “very controversial” but it has not been publicly ruled out by Theresa May’s Government.
However, in an interview with the News Letter ahead of the DUP’s annual conference, which takes place today in the Castlereagh hills above Belfast, the First Minister said that such an outcome would be unacceptable.
Meanwhile, Belfast High Court yesterday rejected the first two legal challenges to Brexit to be heard by a UK court, turning down five separate grounds of appeal.
Mrs Foster was asked whether there was a chance that if there is not a hard border at the Irish border that there could be a hard border at Stranraer or Cairnryan and at Belfast Port, meaning that passports have to be produced to travel within the UK.
She said: “No. We’ve been very clear with the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State that that is a red line for us; that there cannot be any internal borders within the United Kingdom.
“That has not only been acknowledged, but accepted [by the Government].”
When asked if that meant that passport control between Great Britain and Northern Ireland was simply not going to happen, Mrs Foster said emphatically: “No, it’s not.”
Earlier this month, a Government minister said that maintaining the soft border on the island of Ireland will be a “red line” in the UK’s Brexit negotiations with Europe.
Robin Walker, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department for Exiting the European Union, said it was one of “very few” areas not open to negotiation.
Taken together with what Mrs Foster has said, the comments suggest a post-Brexit landscape in which there is no passport control either between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland nor between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
That raises the possibility of some sort of UK passport control being shifted to Dublin Airport and other entry points, as is the case with US border checks in a special diplomatically designated area of Dublin Airport.
On Thursday, the front page of the Irish edition of The Times reported that crucial Brexit talks between Dublin and London had been delayed by “infighting” between the DUP and Sinn Fein who were unable to agree on a common position.
When asked about that, Mrs Foster said: “It’s not true.
“As you know, we sent a letter of 10 August – which I took a bit of flak for. I fundamentally believe that there will be short-term challenges, but in the longer term the opportunities not just for Northern Ireland but, I’m a unionist and I care what happens in the whole of the UK, the opportunities for the whole of the UK will far outweigh any of the challenges that we have to deal with.”
Mrs Foster said that she was frustrated by those who contrasted the uncertainty of Brexit with the ‘certainty’ of the status quo within the EU.
“There’s nothing certain about the European Union because of course we were going to have the Common Agricultural Policy renegotiations again, we were going to have to deal with more new countries coming in and what that meant for the UK as a net contributor, so I think that there are big opportunities for us in Northern Ireland.”
Pressed on whether there is an agreed position with Sinn Fein on what the post-Brexit border should look like, Mrs Foster said that there is an “agreed position between the United Kingdom, the Irish Government and ourselves”.
She went on: “As someone who lives on the border, there’s no such thing as a hard border because there are so many little country roads that go in and out of Co Fermanagh and into Cavan and Monaghan, you couldn’t possibly have a hard border. It’s a nonsense.
“So I think what we want to see is how, given the modern technology that we have today, given the reality of relationships between ourselves and the Republic of Ireland, given the Common Travel Area, what is it that we can do to have a new and innovative relationship with colleagues in the Republic of Ireland.”