Warnings of post-Brexit violence in Northern Ireland are being used as a “bargaining chip” in negotiations, the DUP’s leader has claimed.
Arlene Foster accused those “throwing threats of violence around” of insulting the people of Northern Ireland, amid an impasse over the Irish border issue in the UK’s divorce talks.
The UK Government and EU27 are currently in dispute over Brussels’ proposals to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, should it not be resolved as part of the future UK-EU trade relationship.
Both the Prime Minister and Ms Foster have rejected the EU’s plans for Northern Ireland to remain in a “common regulatory area” with the bloc, warning such a scheme would threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK.
Former UK prime ministers Sir John Major and Tony Blair have recently made significant interventions over Brexit and its possible impact on the Irish border.
Sir John warned a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland may be inevitable due to the Government’s decision to rule out a customs union with the EU, while Mr Blair accused Leave supporters of being “prepared to sacrifice peace in Northern Ireland on the altar of Brexit”.
EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has also made frequent reference to a need to protect the Good Friday Agreement in the UK’s divorce negotiations.
But, speaking at the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) annual conference in London, Mrs Foster delivered a warning to those raising the spectre of violence in Northern Ireland.
“I want to see an optimistic, sensible and pragmatic approach to Brexit,” she said.
“I object in the strongest possible terms to people who have limited experience of the Troubles in Northern Ireland throwing threats of violence around as some kind of bargaining chip in this negotiating process.
“To do so is an insult to the people of Northern Ireland who worked so hard to bring peace to our country.”
The UK Government has routinely stressed a solution to the Irish border issue cannot be finalised until the future UK-EU relationship is negotiated.
Senior Tory MP Bernard Jenkin claimed at another conference on Thursday that it was a “phoney issue”, appearing to blame Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar.
He claimed things would be “resolved” after elections in Ireland and that “realism will prevail” when the Taoiseach stops “taunting the unionists”.
Mr Jenkin also said the Good Friday Agreement “not functioning as expected” was “nothing to do with Brexit”.
But European Council president Donald Tusk, following a meeting with Mr Varadkar in Dublin on Thursday, repeated Brussels’ insistence a settlement on the Irish border must precede trade talks.
Mr Tusk posted on Twitter: “If in London someone assumes that the #Brexit negotiations will deal with other issues first, before moving to the Irish issue, my response would be: Ireland first.”
Mr Varadkar insisted he would prefer to avoid a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland through the wider UK-EU relationship.
But he claimed Dublin needs “certainty” there will be no hard border after Brexit through the fall-back option of Northern Ireland continuing to be aligned with the EU’s single market.
“We are committed to playing our part in exploring this option or alternative specific solutions in a way that respects the structure of these negotiations,” he said.