Northern Ireland news

Northern Ireland 'needs Brexit clarity from London'

Road sign for Customs and Excise close to the border between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland just outside Newry Co. Down ahead of the Commons vote on Theresa May's draft EU withdrawal deal
Michael McHugh and Marie Louise McConville

NORTHERN Ireland needs Brexit clarity from a UK Government "consumed" by the coronavirus emergency, the Stormont civil servant in charge of preparations has said.

Two scenarios have been drawn up depending on whether Britain secures a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU.

Without one, a border protocol surrounding compliance with aspects of the Republic's system is expected to apply, senior official Andrew McCormick said.

He said: "Time is tight but what is needed from London is clarity on these issues."

Civil servants are assuming neither the UK nor Europe will request an extension of the one-year transition agreement due to run out at the end of the year.

The director general of international relations for the devolved administration gave evidence to a Stormont committee yesterday.

He acknowledged the focus had been on combating the coronavirus infection.

"The UK Government has also been consumed by, the bandwidth for activity has been dominated by the virus."

The chair of the group charged with consulting with the devolved regions is Michael Gove, who has also had to devote his time to the Covid-19 crisis.

Mr McCormick said: "This is a very, very challenging situation, and in that we all do what we possibly can to contribute positively to resolving and moving these issues on.

"There is no lack of pressure from us at official level and then engagements at ministerial level pushing the UK Government for more clarity and resolution of the issues that matter to us."

SDLP assembly member Colin McGrath said yesterday that managing the fight against coronavirus cannot be done "in parallel to Brexit".

The chair of the assembly’s Executive Office committee was speaking after Foreign Secretary Dominic Rabb said the UK must "double down" and secure a Brexit deal by the end of the year to give businesses a "shot in the arm".

Mr McGrath said the government was already "stretched to its limit dealing with the public health emergency".

"It is ludicrous that in these circumstances, the British government refuses to shed its ideological fervour and admit that it is not possible to construct a new economic relationship with Europe in the short time left."

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