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Northern Ireland

Boris Johnson's Brexit comments 'unhelpful', Coveney says

The Tánaiste was meeting with new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Julian Smith today.

LAST UPDATE | 26 Jul 2019

TÁNAISTE AND MINISTER for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said yesterday was a “very bad day” in the Brexit negotiation process. 

Speaking to reporters in Belfast this morning following a meeting with new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, Coveney described British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s comments earlier this week as “very unhelpful”. 

“The statements of the British Prime Minister yesterday in the House of Commons were very unhelpful to this process,” Coveney told reporters.

“He seems to have made a deliberate decision to set Britain on a collision course with the European Union and with Ireland in relation to the Brexit negotiations, and I think only he can answer the question as to why he is doing that.”

Johnson entered 10 Downing Street as Prime Minister on Wednesday. In his first speech as PM, he pledged to leave the EU by the Brexit deadline of 31 October.

“The people who bet against Britain are going to lose their shirts,” Johnson said.

The doubters, the doomsters are going to get it wrong again…We are going to come out of the EU on October 31 – no ifs, no buts. We will do a new deal, a better deal that will maximise the opportunities.

“I have every confidence that in 99 days time, we will have cracked it. But do you know what, we’re not going to wait 99 days because the British people have had enough of waiting.”

‘Importance of the backstop’ 

Following today’s meeting with Smith, Coveney said that he “stressed the need to get Stormont back up and running, and the importance of the Irish and British governments working together as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement” and described it as a “good meeting”.

Smith, who was appointed to the role by Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday, is also meeting representatives from Sinn Féin, the Democratic Unionist Party and other Stormont parties today.

Ongoing concerns about Brexit and getting the Northern Ireland Executive back up and running will be top of the agenda.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland earlier, Pearse Doherty said his Sinn Féin colleagues will try to “impress on [Smith] the importance of the backstop” in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

Doherty said the backstop is needed to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Irish economy, and to ensure there is no return of a hard border on the island of Ireland.

He said Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Féin’s leader in the Northern Ireland Assembly, stressed this to Johnson in a phone call last night.

Many Conservative and DUP politicians have raised concerns about the backstop, which aims to avoid a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland and could see the North stay aligned to some EU rules.

The DUP, which campaigned in favour of Brexit, believes the backstop threatens the UK and could lead to a trade border in the Irish Sea. The Tories govern through an alliance with the DUP.

‘Little interest’ 

Sinn Féin previously criticised Karen Bradley, Smith’s predecessor, for her lack of knowledge in relation to the North’s history.

Doherty this morning said Smith seems to have had “little interest or very little to say on the North in his career” apart from attending a DUP conference in 2017.

Doherty said Sinn Féin is “not naive” in relation to the need to protect the integrity of the European Single Market and Customs Union when Britain leaves the EU, but said “imaginative ways” must be found to deal with the situation.

He said Irish, Northern Irish, British and European Brexit negotiators all agree there should be no return to a hard border.

However, he said some members of Johnson’s “pro-Brexit” Cabinet have “expressed disdain of the Good Friday Agreement”, singling out Michael Gove in particular.

Speaking last weekend, Coveney said a no-deal Brexit “will be a disaster for us all” and “devastate the Northern Irish economy”.

He said the Withdrawal Agreement, which has been rejected by the House of Commons three times, is “a balanced document that deals with the interests of all parties and is not something that is up for renegotiation”.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, echoed these sentiments in an email sent to EU ambassadors yesterday, writing: “PM Johnson has stated that if an agreement is to be reached it goes by way of eliminating the backstop. This is of course unacceptable and not within the mandate of the European Council.”

Contains reporting from Cónal Thomas and © AFP 2019  

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