herald

Tuesday 24 October 2017

Brexit is the challenge of our generation, Leo tells Belfast audience

Leo Varadkar
Leo Varadkar

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has told an audience in Belfast that Brexit is the challenge of a generation and that "unique solutions" will be needed to prevent it causing major damage.

Mr Varadkar said a so-called "hard Brexit", in which Britain leaves the EU single market and customs union, would mean "barriers to commerce and trade" between the Republic and the North.

Britain voted last year to quit the 28-nation bloc and is due to formally leave the EU in March 2019.

The decision has huge implications here, not least as Ireland is the only EU country to share a land border with the UK.

Barriers

Mr Varadkar said there will have to be "unique solutions if we are to preserve all that we've gained" since the peace process was cemented two decades ago and Border barriers were dismantled.

The Taoiseach said he did not want to see a return to a hard Border.

He said the onus was on supporters of Brexit "to come up with proposals for such a Border" and persuade people it was a good idea.

"They've already had 14 months to do so," he said. "If they cannot - and I believe they cannot - we can then talk meaningfully about solutions that might work for all of us."

Divorce talks between Britain and the bloc are underway, but EU officials say progress must be made on resolving issues around the Border, the size of Britain's exit bill and the status of EU nationals in the UK before the two sides can start hammering out their future economic relationship.

Mr Varadkar said he hopes EU leaders will see enough progress by a summit in October, "but I do not underestimate for a second the enormity of the challenges that we face".

Mr Varadkar also said he and British Prime Minister Theresa May are prepared to get directly involved in the Stormont talks, stressing the need for devolution ahead of crucial Brexit negotiations.

He said the restoration of a power-sharing government in the North was necessary to try and achieve the best post- Brexit outcome for the island of Ireland.

He said he is "willing to drop everything" to help end the political deadlock - but only if he believes it will make a difference.

Visit

Mr Varadkar arrived in Belfast yesterday for his first visit since becoming Taoiseach.

He said that his meetings with political parties will focus on Brexit and the political crisis at Stormont.

He described the gulf between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party as "wide and deep", but said he did not believe the differences between the two parties were insurmountable.

He said that, having spoken to Mrs May on the phone, they have both agreed to become directly involved in negotiations to restore the executive if they believe it will make a difference.

"If the main parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, come to a point where an agreement can be sealed, we are willing and able to do what we can to get the executive up and running again and have the assembly meeting," said Mr Varadkar.

"If there is a point at which an intervention would make a difference, we are absolutely willing to drop everything and deal with that."

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