British Prime Minister Theresa May visited Northern Ireland on Monday to attempt to alleviate “Brexit” fears concerning its effect on the province’s cross-border relations with the Irish Republic and EU funding.
Northern Ireland is Britain’s only land border and will be its only frontier with the EU when it quits the bloc.
May met First Minister and Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster, who campaigned for the UK to leave the EU, and her deputy Martin McGuinness, who campaigned to remain in the EU, for talks in her first visit to Belfast as Prime Minister.
The UK and the Republic of Ireland have shared an open-border Common Travel Area (CTA) since the 1920s. This allows free movement by citizens of the Irish Republic into the north and vice versa.
The “Brexit” has raised questions about continuing the CTA.
McGuiness said last week that we could not see how the CTA could survive “Brexit” negotiations.
“We have spent the last 20 years forging various agreements which have placed the Irish peace process as one of the most successful peace processes in the world today,” said McGuiness.
“Anything that resembled a return to border checkpoints would represent a grievous undermining of the Good Friday Agreement.”
Foster said that there must be a “realistic way” of dealing with the CTA and that all sides need to be “creative and flexible”.
“We had a common travel area between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland many years before either country was a member of the European Union. Nobody wants to return to the borders of the past,” May said.
“What we do want to do is to find a way through this that is going to work, deliver a practical solution for everybody to ensure that we come out of this with a deal which is in the best interests of the whole of the United Kingdom.”
Concerns about the border have been raised because those who voted to leave the EU are in favour of Britain controlling immigration, and therefore its borders.
Questions have also been raised regarding the legality of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended over 30 years of conflict between the Protestant unionists (who wanted Northern Ireland to remain British) and the Catholic nationalists (who wanted a united Ireland).
Political leaders in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic are insisting that open travel will be able to continue, along with trade across the Irish Sea that predates the province’s entering the EU in 1973.
“I have been clear that we will make a success of the UK’s departure from the European Union,” May said in a statement. “That means it must work for Northern Ireland too, including in relation to the border with the Republic.”
May has also said that the future of Irish border arrangements will depend on the outcome of negotiations with Brussels concerning “Brexit” and that she will work with all of Northern Ireland’s political parties.
On Friday, Foster and Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said the UK leaving the EU must not result in creating a “hard border” between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.
“Hard borders would not be accepted in the south or the north,” said Kenny. “We have difficulties but I expect us to retain the Common Travel Area…It’s a fundamental part of who we are.”
On Monday, a coalition of Northern Ireland politicians and human rights activists threatened a legal challenge against any British government move to exit the EU unless the province’s Good Friday Agreement peace accord is safeguarded.
The peace accord has several references to the EU.
Although a majority across the UK (52-48 percent) voted in favour of leaving the EU, Northern Ireland overwhelmingly voted to remain (56-44 percent), as did Scotland (62-38 percent). This has set it at odds with the rest of the UK.
May has previously promised to keep the United Kingdom intact. Since becoming Prime Minister, she has already visited Scotland and Wales.
“I am delighted to be visiting Northern Ireland. I made clear when I became prime minister that I place particular value on the precious bonds between the nations of the United Kingdom,” May said in the statement before her visit.
However, following the “Brexit” vote McGuiness demanded an independence referendum to split Northern Ireland from the UK in a bid to remain in the EU as part of a united Ireland.
The British government rejected his demand.
“I am going to make it very clear that the people of Northern Ireland took a democratic decision in the referendum to see our future in Europe and that has to be respected,” McGuinness told Irish state broadcaster RTE on Monday.
“The British government, who appear determined to exit Europe, need to take account of the special circumstances that exist here in the north,” he said.
McGuiness has also raised questions regarding whether the British government would replace billions of euros of agricultural subsidies and funding for peace processes and other projects provided by the EU.
He said he had a frank exchange with May on Monday, in which he asserted that Northern Irish voters wished to remain in the EU.
“I speak for the people of the North, who are Unionist and Nationalist, and have made it clear that they see their future in Europe … There is no good news whatsoever in Brexit for anybody in the North,” said McGuinness.