David Davis has sought to ease Brexit concerns for Northern Ireland, amid warnings over the economy and lack of an Executive.
The Brexit secretary told MPs that issues important to Northern Ireland are “front and centre” in the UK government’s negotiating list.
Mr Davis was replying to concerns from Alasdair McDonnell, SDLP MP for Belfast South.
Elections are to be held on March 2 after Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister, in a feud with coalition partners the DUP over an overspending eco-boiler scheme.
Speaking as MPs debated the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, Mr McDonnell told Mr Davis: “Do you accept that Northern Ireland voted to stay in the European Union? In fact, my own constituency voted 70% on a 70% turnout.
“Do you accept that we don’t have a devolved administration at the moment and do you have any plans to recognise the Northern Ireland situation and the damage that’s been done already to the Northern Ireland economy, particularly our agricultural economy?”
Mr Davis replied: “The position of Northern Ireland, the peace process and all the related issues were obviously at the forefront of the prime minister’s mind when she went there as one of her first visits as prime minister, and has been at the forefront of my mind.
“And that’s why we have, without any qualification whatsoever, guaranteed that we will retain the CTA, the common travel area.
“In terms of continuing representation, although there is no Executive, individual ministers do stay in place – as is normal with governments during election times – and I wrote to the Executive a week or so ago, asking them to send a representative to each of the joint ministerial committee meetings.
“They have done so and they have made serious and significant contributions to those meetings.
“We are taking very seriously the analysis they provided of industries in Northern Ireland and very special issues, like the single Irish energy market, are the sort of issues we’ve got front and centre in the list of negotiating points to deal with.
“So, you may take it as absolute read that we take the issue of Northern Ireland and protecting Northern Ireland incredibly seriously.”
Sammy Wilson, DUP MP for East Antrim, said it would be wrong for any of the devolved administrations to effectively be given a veto over Brexit.
He said the referendum should be judged on a national basis, “not on a narrow regional basis”.
He added: “It would be detrimental to the Union if we had a situation where Scotland or Wales or Northern Ireland had the right to say to the people of the whole of the United Kingdom ‘we don’t care how you voted, the 1.8 million people in Northern Ireland have a right to veto how the rest of the people in the United Kingdom express their views’.
“That would be detrimental to the Union.”