Theresa May has said she will work “to deliver a practical solution” to the question mark over what will happen along the Irish border.
However the British Prime Minister warned in the same breath that the UK would take measures to protect its immigration system.
Ms. May made the comments while delivering her speech setting out her Tory government’s priorities as they forge ahead with plans to quit the European Union.
Speaking on Tuesday afternoon, Ms May said: “We cannot forget that, as we leave, the United Kingdom will share a land border with the EU, and maintaining that Common Travel Area with the Republic of Ireland will be an important priority for the UK in the talks ahead.
“There has been a Common Travel Area between the UK and the Republic of Ireland for many years. Indeed, it was formed before either of our two countries were members of the European Union. And the family ties and bonds of affection that unite our two countries mean that there will always be a special relationship between us.
“So we will work to deliver a practical solution that allows the maintenance of the Common Travel Area with the Republic, while protecting the integrity of the United Kingdom’s immigration system.”
Ms May said that nobody wanted a return to the borders of the past, adding that because of this “we will make it a priority to deliver a practical solution as soon as we can”.
She also said there was a need to “strengthen the precious union” between the four nations of the UK, two of whom, Northern Ireland and Scotland, rejected Brexit at the polls. She also addressed the forthcoming Assembly election in the north.
“At this momentous time,” she said, “it is more important than ever that we face the future together, united by what makes us strong: the bonds that unite us as a people, and our shared interest in the UK being an open, successful trading nation in the future.
“And I hope that same spirit of unity will apply in Northern Ireland in particular over the coming months in the Assembly elections, and the main parties there will work together to re-establish a partnership government as soon as possible.”
She added: “I look forward to working with the administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to deliver a Brexit that works for the whole of the United Kingdom.
“Part of that will mean working very carefully to ensure that - as powers are repatriated from Brussels back to Britain - the right powers are returned to Westminster, and the right powers are passed to the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“As we do so, our guiding principle must be to ensure that - as we leave the European Union - no new barriers to living and doing business within our own Union are created,”
Ms May said that efforts will be made to ensure that the immigration system in a post-Brexit UK “serves the national interest”.
“So we will get control of the number of people coming to Britain from the EU.
“Because while controlled immigration can bring great benefits - filling skills shortages, delivering public services, making British businesses the world-beaters they often are - when the numbers get too high, public support for the system falters.”
She said: “Britain is an open and tolerant country. We will always want immigration, especially high-skilled immigration, we will always want immigration from Europe, and we will always welcome individual migrants as friends. But the message from the public before and during the referendum campaign was clear: Brexit must mean control of the number of people who come to Britain from Europe. And that is what we will deliver.”
The British Prime Minister said that in terms of building trade links across the world, what she was proposing “cannot mean membership of the Single Market”.
“European leaders have said many times that membership means accepting the ‘four freedoms’ of goods, capital, services and people. And being out of the EU but a member of the Single Market would mean complying with the EU’s rules and regulations that implement those freedoms, without having a vote on what those rules and regulations are.
“It would mean accepting a role for the European Court of Justice that would see it still having direct legal authority in our country.
“It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all.
“And that is why both sides in the referendum campaign made it clear that a vote to leave the EU would be a vote to leave the Single Market.
“So we do not seek membership of the Single Market. Instead we seek the greatest possible access to it through a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement.
“That Agreement may take in elements of current Single Market arrangements in certain areas - on the export of cars and lorries for example, or the freedom to provide financial services across national borders - as it makes no sense to start again from scratch when Britain and the remaining Member States have adhered to the same rules for so many years.”
Fears were expressed in Derry last week that Britain leaving the Customs Union would have hefty financial implications for any businesses traversing the Irish border, even the few miles from Derry City to Bridgend in Inishowen, Co Donegal.
Addressing concerns over such a move, Ms May said: “I know my emphasis on striking trade agreements with countries outside Europe has led to questions about whether Britain seeks to remain a member of the EU’s Customs Union. And it is true that full Customs Union membership prevents us from negotiating our own comprehensive trade deals.
“Now, I want Britain to be able to negotiate its own trade agreements. But I also want tariff-free trade with Europe and cross-border trade there to be as frictionless as possible.
“That means I do not want Britain to be part of the Common Commercial Policy and I do not want us to be bound by the Common External Tariff. These are the elements of the Customs Union that prevent us from striking our own comprehensive trade agreements with other countries. But I do want us to have a customs agreement with the EU.
“Whether that means we must reach a completely new customs agreement, become an associate member of the Customs Union in some way, or remain a signatory to some elements of it, I hold no preconceived position. I have an open mind on how we do it. It is not the means that matter, but the ends.
“And those ends are clear: I want to remove as many barriers to trade as possible. And I want Britain to be free to establish our own tariff schedules at the World Trade Organisation, meaning we can reach new trade agreements not just with the European Union but with old friends and new allies from outside Europe too.”