A top DUP figure has warned the Dublin government must not “provoke” unionists over Brexit, or they could be stirred into pressing for an especially hard border.
Ian Paisley was speaking after a flurry of speculation and angry statements in the wake of a report that the Irish government was aiming to make the Irish Sea the de facto border for Brexit, with customs and passport checks being done at Northern Ireland’s harbours and airports, and no controls along the land frontier.
The report emerged in The Times newspaper of London, and sparked a furious reaction from the UUP and DUP.
On Friday morning, Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs issued a statement to the News Letter which did not contradict what the article had said, before Irish foreign minister later Simon Coveney went on to state flatly: “There is no proposal that is suggesting that there be a border in the Irish Sea.”
But by then unionists had already lined up to condemn the notion; Mr Paisley said the Republic’s foreign minister was in “real danger of appearing like an Argentinian talking about the Falklands” by pressing for a sea-based EU border.
Meanwhile ex-UUP first minister Lord Trimble dismissed the sea border suggestion as simply “rubbish”, whilst ex-Tory chairman and trade secretary Norman Tebbit dubbed it “a particularly silly idea”.
Ian Paisley said the idea of having the EU border at the shores of the Irish Sea was “utter madness”.
He said an election will be coming up soon in the Republic, and many voters will be asking the question: Who is the ‘greenest’ Irish party?
“And Mr Coveney [is in] real danger of appearing like an Argentinian talking about the Falklands or a Spaniard talking about Gibraltar at election time,” he told the News Letter on Friday morning.
“I think it’s total and naked electioneering. That’s all it was. It’s in the Republic of Ireland’s interest to actually have a good relationship with Northern Ireland and with the UK. Therefore they shouldn’t be saying or doing anything that provokes hostility.
“Now when I say it’s in their interests, it’s singularly in their economic interests to have that good relationship given that most of their trade is with us...
“If they want to provoke unionists, who have been very easy about the issue of the border, and have been prepared to be flexible, if they want to provoke unionists into arguing and campaigning for a hard border then step right up – keep going, keep going.
“We’ll give you the hardest border you’ve ever seen if that’s what you want.”
Later on Friday, once the Irish government distanced itself from the idea of an Irish Sea border, Mr Paisley said: “Here we have an admission that they’ve caused a flurry of press speculation and unhelpful comment for 24 hours, only now to calm it all down.
“I think it’s a lesson to Mr Coveney and to Leo Varadkar that if [they should] take a much more mature response, and stop raising straw men that – 24 hours later – they then kill off.”
Lord Trimble, a cross-bench peer and one of the key architects of the Good Friday Agreement, told the News Letter that the sea border suggestion was “rubbish; sorry, Northern Ireland is part of the UK, so you can’t have a border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK”.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his foreign minister Simon Coveney only took up post last month, and Mr Trimble said: “The kindest thing to say is, as you say, they’re new. And they may not fully understand what they’re dealing with.”
He said the idea would serve to “undermine” the part of the Agreement which enshrines the Republic’s recognition of Northern Ireland’s status within the UK.
Norman Tebbit, who was the chairman of the Conservative Party in the mid-1980s and held a succession of economic posts in the cabinet during the decade, told the News Letter: “It sounds to me like a particularly silly idea. It happens that Northern Ireland is part of the UK, and we don’t need a border between one part of the kingdom and another.”
He added the suggestion might have been raised “just to make mischief”.
“In the long run, the Republic of Ireland would probably be better out of the EU as well,” he said.
“As the EU gets into more trouble... sooner or later people may begin to think about that.
“For my part, if the Republic was out of the EU, I’d be all for putting my arm around their shoulder and doing anything that we as the UK could do to help.”