‘Common ground’ in North-South Brexit talks

Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness sit opposite their Dublin counterparts at the Armagh meeting
Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness sit opposite their Dublin counterparts at the Armagh meeting

Ministers from both sides of the Irish border have hailed the latest round of Brexit discussions as their best yet.

The UK’s forthcoming EU departure topped the agenda at a meeting of the North South Ministerial Committee (NSMC) where Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan joined Stormont’s First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in Armagh on Friday.

Afterwards Taoiseach Enda Kenny described the talks as “constructive”, adding there had been a “great deal of common ground”.

He said: “We have had a very constructive and a very good meeting – actually one of the best meetings that I have attended.

“One point that we all stressed at this meeting was that it is really important, from an island of Ireland perspective, that there be that strength of solidarity in respect of those common interests.

“So, when discussions do start, and I as taoiseach will be sitting on the European side of these arguments, will be able to work to get the best deal possible for the island of Ireland north and south.”

As well as highlighting the unique circumstances in Ireland including the land border, peace process and peace funds, Mr Kenny cautioned that Europe would not allow the UK to “cherry pick” specific deals.

“If the UK want access to the single market, they must come with that freedom of movement of people and that is a challenge and an issue that the British Government has got to focus on,” he said.

The NSMC was set up under the Good Friday Agreement and generally meets in plenary session just twice a year.

Mrs Foster, who earlier this week dismissed suggestions of a frosty relationship with Dublin, described the meeting as useful.

She said: “The taoiseach has been very good to share some of the discussions that are going on at a European level in terms of the Republic of Ireland’s government and we are very grateful to hear that.

“We shared our position in terms of Northern Ireland and indeed in terms of the discussions that are going on a UK basis as well.

“So, it was a very useful meeting.

“We await to see what happens in terms of the Supreme Court and we’ll take it from there.”

The DUP leader said she was not surprised that attitudes from some European leaders had hardened in the wake of the referendum result, adding: “You can all take up positions before negotiations start but then you have to start the negotiation.

“And that’s where we will be after Article 50 has been triggered.”

Meanwhile, Mr McGuinness revealed the NSMC has agreed to set up a high-level working group of civil servants to prepare for Brexit.

He said the apparent confusion emanating from Westminster on the issue meant “everything is on the table”.

“Today’s meeting was of critical importance and I think huge progress was made,” the Sinn Fein MLA said.

Mr Flanagan hailed the meeting as the most engaging, important and significant of his two-year tenure as Irish foreign minister.