An Tánaiste Simon Coveney has warned that the “hard won” normalisation of life along the border region in the north west must not be compromised as a result of Brexit.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade was speaking after addressing the Chamber of Commerce President’s Lunch at the City Hotel in Derry.
During his visit Mr. Coveney also held a series of meetings with businesses and regional representatives in Derry, Donegal and the North West region.
He also met with the SDLP, Alliance Party and with representatives from the Museum of Free Derry, the Londonderry Bands Forum and An Cultúrlann during his visit.
Mr Coveney said that the north west remained “very vulnerable to Brexit.”
He said: “If you look at the number of border crossings, for example, in the north west alone it’s about 320,000 per week. A lot of people cross the border four and five times a day, visiting family, going to college, working. It’s a seamless border at the moment.
“What we have is a border region with two jurisdictions that are co-operating really well with each other between Letterkenny and Derry, in a way that is mutually beneficial for everybody, sharing health services, GP services, education facilities and that is what we want to maintain in the future.
“We don’t want to see any barriers or delays in terms of that free-flowing movement that has created a normalisation in this part of the world. It’s been hard won.
“One of the reasons I am here today is to try and reassure people that we are trying to reflect the interests of the island of Ireland as a whole. Whether you are a nationalist or a unionist, nobody wants to see border infrastructure emerge on the island of Ireland.”
Mr. Coveney said that the Irish Government and the European Union was also insisting on a backstop arrangement in relation to the border to safeguard the interests of people across the island in the event no agreement being reached between Britain and the European Union.
He said that while this was not the preferred option, it would “reassure people in Northern Ireland that they will not face any border infrastructure or any related checks or controls in the future.”
“What we want is a comprehensive future relationship agrement between the United Kingdom and the EU that means a backstop isn’t necessary, but the British Prime Minister and the EU task force have agreed now that there needs to be that backstop in place to provide the reassurance, and that needs to be negotiated and finalised between now and October. We have said we would like to see significant progress on that by June.”
He added: “We are not asking for everything to be finalised by June, but we do expect to see significant progress on an operable legal text that reflects the commitments made in December.”
Mr Coveney added that the Irish Government’s position remained that it would prefer to see Britain stay in the Single Market and Customs Union.
He said: “Our view is that while of course we respect that the British people made a decision to leave the European Union, we feel a lot of the problems that flow from that could be made much easier to solve if Britain was to be part of an extended single market and customs union.
“As regards the island of Ireland, solving the border issues, ensuring that we don’t need to use a backstop, which hopefully we can agree in the coming months, a lot of that would be made easier to solve if we were part of a shared Customs Union and Single Market,” he maintained.
He reiterated that the issues regarding the Irish border were “not going to be solved by technology and cameras and scanning systems and drones on the border.
“What is required here is a political agreement which is consistent with maintaining full alignment with the rules of the Customs Union and the Single Market within the areas necessary to allow for the all-Ireland economy to function, and north-south co-operation to function, and to protect the Good Friday Agreement. That is the commitment that has been made by both sides and now we are looking for a legal text which reflects that that can be agreed between the two negotiating teams,” Mr Coveney said, adding: “There will be no withdrawal agreement if there is not a backstop on the Irish issues in it. That has been made very clear by everybody involved.”