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Northern Ireland news

Brexit without a deal with EU would be 'catastrophic' for Northern Ireland

There have been protests along the border over the prospect of a 'hard' border between Northern Ireland and the Republic after Brexit. Picture by Mal McCann 
Kate Ferguson, Press Association

THE British Government must resist "siren calls" for the UK to crash out of the European Union on WTO rules, a Tory former foreign minister said, warning it would be "catastrophic" for Northern Ireland.

Theresa May has said the UK will leave the EU with no deal rather than be saddled with a bad deal, a move that raises the prospect of tariffs, and the Cabinet is drawing up plans in case Britain fails to strike a deal.

Alistair Burt, who sits on the Brexit Select Committee, said the move to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules would mean a return to hard borders in Northern Ireland which could prove "catastrophic" to the peace process.

Speaking in Brexit Questions in the Commons, Mr Burt said: "When the Brexit Select Committee visited Dublin recently it was described to us that a default to WTO by the United Kingdom would be catastrophic, catastrophic for the island of Ireland with the re-imposition of a border.

"Could the minister reassure the House that he will continue to resist siren calls to move towards WTO, if for no other reason than the reasons affecting Ireland itself?"

His comments come amid political turmoil in Northern Ireland where powersharing at Stormont has collapsed.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire is in talks with Sinn Fein and Unionist parties to try to restore powersharing, but they have just three weeks to reach a deal.

Brexit Minister Robin Walker sought to ease fears direct rule from Westminster could be reimposed, however, telling MPs: "We are not contemplating anything other than the return of devolved government."

He also played down fears a hard border could return to the island of Ireland.

He said: "The Government has set out a very clear strategy about establishing a partnership with the European Union, that is what we should focus on.

"And that partnership includes the concept of frictionless movement across the border."

Labour MP Pat McFadden (Wolverhampton South East) also raised fears Brexit could spell an end to peace.

He said: "Does the Government appreciate that the Good Friday Agreement was not a single event signed and sealed and put on a shelf 20 years ago, but rather was a process of normalisation of relations and free movement of goods, people and so on?

"And if the Government does realise that, will they therefore make sure that they respond to the very real fears in Ireland that Brexit represents a turning back of the clock on the precious new normality that has developed in the last 20 years?"

Conservative MP Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) warned of the "very serious impact" a hard border would have "not only on the tens of thousands of people who every day cross the border to work, study or for healthcare, but could even have on the peace process".

Mr Walker said: "We are fully committed to ensuring that as we establish our negotiating position the unique interests of Northern Ireland are protected and advanced, and that the UK Government has a clear role in providing political stability in Northern Ireland.

"The Northern Ireland Secretary is doing everything he can to secure the resumption of devolved government.

"It's important everyone engages constructively to reach a positive conclusion as quickly as possible.

"We are not contemplating anything other than the return of devolved government."

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