Businesses in north still not convinced border conundrum can be solved

Mr Barnier at his meeting in Newry with (from left) Colin Neill (Hospitality Ulster), Glyn Roberts (Retail NI) and Stephen Kelly (Manufacturing NI)
Gary McDonald Business Editor

BUSINESSES in the north remain unconvinced that the border conundrum can be unravelled despite a series of meetings with Michel Barnier.

The EU bloc's chief negotiator, who is on a two-day visit to both sides of the border, addressed a conference in Dundalk before travelling north for a round-table with business chiefs in Newry, where he admitted the talks process is "extraordinary and complex".

But he insisted: "Only Northern Ireland-specific solutions will work. Only this can address the challenges created by Brexit in full."

Arriving at the offices of cross-border trade body InterTradeIreland in Newry, he asserted his aim to maintain the all-Ireland economy, Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions, to find a way for no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and also to respect the single market and the customs union of the EU.

But his visit came against the backdrop of criticism from the DUP that he "does not understand unionist culture", which he dismissed, saying "My door is open. I am here to listen."

Mr Barnier - who will spend the second day of his visit in Derry - said there could be no withdrawal deal without a "backstop" option, meaning if no better solution is found, Northern Ireland would continue to follow EU rules relating to the all-Ireland economy and north-south co-operation.

He said: "The backstop is not there to change the UK's red lines. It is there because of the UK's red lines.

"The UK's decision to leave the single market and the customs union creates a risk that the hard border will return. This is why it is necessary to have a self-standing backstop solution."

Many operational details have yet to be resolved surrounding the UK's only land border with an EU state after Brexit and the issue is top of the agenda in Brussels.

He said: "We need to agree rapidly by June on the scope of all-island customs and regulations, the safety and controls that we need to respect the single market."

This summer's meeting of European leaders in Brussels would be a "stepping stone" for the final summit in October, which is the deadline for reaching an agreement on withdrawal, he added.

"The backstop is needed in order to respect the integrity of the single market and the EU's customs union," he said.

"Some people think that we could have two different sets of rules on the island of Ireland and still avoid border checks.

"But Ireland is a member of the EU - and a proud member. It is an active player, active, very active player, in the single market.

"Goods that enter Ireland also enter the single market. It is called the 'single' market for a reason."

Following the Newry meeting, the chief executives of Manufacturing NI, Retail NI and Hospitality Ulster, said they at least welcomed the opportunity to discuss the concerns of the three sectors, even if no firm answers were forthcoming.

In a joint statement afterwards, Stephen Kelly, Glyn Roberts and Colin Neill said: “We’ve met with many politicians from the UK and EU but this was the first chance for Michel Barnier and his team to hear directly from businesses here about what Brexit will mean to our industries and firms.

“We stressed that there is a need to find a way which ensures no border in Ireland or between these islands in the interest of our economy and the hundreds of thousands of people across Northern Ireland who work in our businesses.

“During the meeting we made it clear that trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK must remain unfettered regardless of the Brexit agreement outcome.

“Our three groups will be seeking further meetings in London, Dublin and Brussels to ensure our respective members voice is heard during these negotiations.”

Meanwhile Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was also challenged by businesses later when he visited Warrenpoint Port, the second largest port in Northern Ireland and the fourth biggest on the island.

The port's chief executive Clare Guinness said: “We used the meeting to press on him our desire for a border that supports frictionless trade, ensuring that it can continue to flow and grow. While this is our preferred position, we are actively formulating plans to deal with whatever scenario results from the Brexit negotiations.

“We also highlighted the need for improved infrastructure in the border region which would help trade north and south, in particular, the delivery of the southern relief road which has already benefitted from European funding through the feasibility phase.”

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