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Bertie on Brexit: 'As good Irish people we're always there to help and support the British in their hour of need'

Speaking at the Magill Summer School, the former Taoiseach added: “Just make sure you don’t do anything to damage us. “

0027 Bertie Ahern_90507797 Ahern gave the keynote John Hume lecture at the Magill Summer School. Source: Leah Farrell/Rollingnews.ie

FORMER TAOISEACH BERTIE Ahern has said it’s incumbent on the British government to make sure Northern Ireland isn’t damaged by the Brexit “debacle”.

Giving the keynote John Hume lecture at the Magill Summer School in Glenties, Co Donegal, Ahern raised doubts that a withdrawal agreement can be reached by the October deadline.

Drawing laughter from the crowd, the former Fianna Fáil leader also said: “As good Irish people we’re always there to help and support the British in their hour of need.

We’ll continue to do that. If they want our advice and help [they should] do so. Just make sure you don’t do anything to damage us.

Ahern was speaking at a time of great uncertainty about Brexit, with infighting in Theresa May’s Conservative government adding to growing concerns that the UK may leave the EU without key agreements on trade and other matters, including Northern Ireland.

On Friday, for example, May said in a speech in Belfast that he EU’s suggestion that Northern Ireland would remain aligned with EU customs regulations in the event of no other solution to the Irish border wasn’t acceptable, and wouldn’t be accepted by a UK prime minister or the House of Commons.

The EU and UK agreed in December to a Brexit backstop for Northern Ireland which means there would be “regulatory alignment” on the island of Ireland, but that they would also avoid a border along the Irish Sea.

There has been much speculation on whether the UK will backtrack on the ‘backstop’ agreement or the ‘Plan B’ arrangement for the relationship between Northern Ireland and the republic in the event of no other solution. The Irish government has been clear that a backstop is essential in the event of a no deal scenario.

“I don’t accept that for one minute [that there is no backstop deal],” Tánaiste Simon Coveney said last week.

During his speech yesterday, Ahern spoke about how Northern Ireland agriculture sector and other sectors will need to be protected post-Brexit, as links to the EU provide a number of benefits.

He said: “It’s a very serious issue. All contracting parties will need to assess how to move these matters in a positive and constructive way.

The deadline to reach a Brexit deal is very tight. They want these discussions concluded by October. It’s simply not clear that this is going to be the case. Any withdrawal deal has to be approved by the UK houses of parliament and this appears to be a tall order.

The former Taoiseach said that EU governments must analyse the white paper issued by the UK government and “should not jump to an immediate judgement”. He said he welcomed the commitment in the white paper to maintaining a frictionless border with Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Ahern also praised EU leaders such as Michel Barnier and Donald Tusk for their support of Ireland in the Brexit negotiations, and said that Britain could not pick and choose elements of its membership of the EU to be retained after Brexit.

“The integrity of the internal market is not premised on countries seeking to participate in some elements of the internal market and not others,” he said. “It’s just not written in law.

I’ve been involved in negotiating many agreements over the years. I know it’s difficult… EU negotiators can only demonstrate flexibility based on the legal constraints that are operating. [They] have to work within some existing general parameters. They can’t go outside the negotiating remit.

He said he couldn’t envisage Sinn Féin and the DUP agreeing to restart the Northern Irish assembly until this Brexit “debacle” had concluded.

Ahern said it’s unlikely that the UK would have a rerun of the Brexit referendum given their reaction to Ireland rerunning the Lisbon treaty referendum.

“They slagged us so much in Britain for doing that, so it’s unlikely they’ll do that,” he said.

All we can do is continue to help them.

Ahern also praised John Hume in his lecture, saying that he deserves to stand alongside “giants like Parnell and O’Connell” in Irish history.

With reporting from Gráinne Ní Aodha

About the author:

Sean Murray

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