One of Brussels’ key figures in the Brexit negotiations has seen at first hand just how divided Northern Ireland’s politicians are about the manner in which Brexit should unfold.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, spent yesterday in Belfast before travelling to Dublin for further meetings today, many of which will focus on how the Irish border can remain low-key after the UK leaves the EU.
The former Belgian prime minister, who sits between the EU negotiating team and the European Parliament – which has to approve the terms of any Brexit deal – floated the idea of Northern Ireland remaining within the customs union while the rest of the UK leaves, a proposal which is supported by nationalist parties but opposed by unionists.
On BBC Radio Ulster yesterday morning it was put to Mr Verhofstadt that while he had consistently agreed that there should not be a hard border in Ireland he had put the pressure on the UK – rather than the EU – to come up with proposals which will allow that to be possible.
The veteran politician replied: “The fact that there is now a debate about the resurrection of a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is not caused by the Irish Republic or by the European Union. It is caused by a decision of the UK Government and of Great Britain as a whole to leave the EU – it is a consequence of their decision to leave the EU so it is normal that we are asking from the UK side a solution to that and I think it will need to be a unique solution.”
He added: “What we certainly also want is that the integrity of our single market and of our customs union is not affected by that solution.”
Speaking yesterday morning, Mr Verhofstadt said that he was in Northern Ireland to hear from the local political parties about how they want Brexit to unfold. But as the day went on and he met the parties, the MEP heard opposing views of what should happen.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said that she had reiterated her commitment to delivering a “seamless land border with the Irish Republic” and welcomed Mr Verhofstadt’s visit as “further reflection of this widespread desire to give our specific circumstances clear priority”.
But she added: “We will not countenance any customs deal that cuts Northern Ireland adrift from our primary marketplace. That was the message we delivered to Mr Verhofstadt.”
UUP leader Robin Swann said after meeting the MEP that “special status for Northern Ireland is not an option”.
Sinn Fein’s Stormont leader, Michelle O’Neill meanwhile warned Mr Verhofstadt that it would be “disastrous for the island of Ireland” if Northern Ireland left the single market and the customs union.
She said: “We simply cannot withstand any exclusion from the single market and customs union, allow the return of borders of the past or deny citizens access to the European Courts of Justice.
“So there is an urgent need for new thinking and that isn’t likely to come from the Tories who are clearly in disarray and simply see Ireland as collateral damage in their reckless Brexit agenda.”