By David Young, Press Association
Ireland’s deputy premier has denied meddling in UK politics, insisting he has an obligation to challenge those “misrepresenting” what the Brexit deal contains.
Simon Coveney said he does not have an anti-British bone in his body and wants to be a “candid friend” to Ireland’s closest neighbour.
Mr Coveney has been critical of Brexiteers who have claimed the Irish border backstop would undermine the constitutional integrity of the UK and bring a united Ireland a step closer by creating barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
“Unfortunately some people are trying to spin it into something that it is not – there is no threat,” he said.
“There is no hidden agenda here coming from the Irish Government or from Dublin. What we are trying to do here is protect the status quo.”
Under the terms of the proposed withdrawal deal, the backstop would only be triggered if a wider trade agreement between the UK and the EU failed to materialise before the close of the Brexit implementation period at the end of 2020.
The measure, which is designed to avoid the re-emergence of any border checks, would see the UK as a whole effectively remain in the EU Customs Union while Northern Ireland would also have to comply with a number of Single Market regulations.
In an interview on BBC Radio Ulster ahead of a day of engagements in Belfast involving meetings with business and political leaders, Mr Coveney said: “I am not trying to meddle, I’m trying to be a candid friend.
“There isn’t an anti-British or English bone in my body, but I believe I have an obligation in the context of the relationships between these two islands and on this island, north and south, to try to find a solution that can allow us all to live together in peace, that allows us to trade together and live normal lives as neighbours together.
“Some people are choosing, in my view, to misrepresent what that deal is about for the future, particularly for Northern Ireland, and I need to speak up on that – I wouldn’t be fulfilling my obligations if I didn’t.”
Relations between the Irish Government and the DUP have frayed during the Brexit process, with the Stormont party accusing the Dublin administration of scaremongering over the threat of a hard border.
The party’s East Antrim MP, Sammy Wilson, has portrayed the border backstop as a “confidence trick” played by the Irish Government.
Mr Coveney suggested that the views of ardent Brexiteer Mr Wilson were not reflective of broader unionism, highlighting the concerns raised by the farming community in Northern Ireland about the prospect of a no deal.
“We may not be convincing Sammy Wilson but that is not the same as not convincing unionism,” he said.
“I listen to farmers’ organisations in Northern Ireland make it very clear today that a no-deal Brexit needs to be avoided, yet I hear Sammy saying that a no-deal Brexit is something that can be managed.
“We are trying to speak to practical people in Northern Ireland who want to see a way forward that works for everybody.”
The Irish Government has rejected any suggestion that a future Stormont executive could veto aspects of the border backstop.
Mr Coveney echoed remarks by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on Wednesday when he expressed concern about a UK Government proposal that, if the backstop came into operation, would mean the devolved legislature in Belfast would have to agree to any subsequent changes to EU laws which affect it.
“Let’s not forget what we are talking about here is a Withdrawal Agreement which is an international agreement between the UK as a whole and the EU as a whole, it isn’t a bilateral agreement between Ireland and Britain,” said Mr Coveney on Thursday.
“And so, from that point of view, I don’t think a Northern Ireland executive can hold a veto over the implementation of an international treaty between the UK and the EU.
“The agreement is the agreement, so it can’t be vetoed or stopped at a later stage because there might be political reasons at the time why people want to frustrate it or delay it.”
Mr Coveney said there was “no easy contingency plan” for the island of Ireland in the event of a no deal.
“That is what people representing Northern Ireland should reflect upon when they vote in the next week in the House of Commons whether or not to ratify a deal that solves the vast majority of these issues and allows Ireland to move forward, maintaining and supporting the progress that there has been over the last 20 years.”
There had been some confusion over whether the Tanaiste’s schedule on Thursday would include a meeting with the DUP after he claimed the party had declined an offer to hold talks.
However, DUP leader Arlene Foster swiftly responded, insisting she was willing to meet him.
“The party has had useful discussions with the Irish Government in the past,” she said.
“I’m happy to meet with the Tanaiste later today in Belfast.”