Northern Ireland won't be left inside EU to avoid hard border, says David Davis

PUBLISHED: 13:36 05 December 2017 | UPDATED: 13:49 05 December 2017

Brexit secretary David Davis responds in the House of Commons to an urgent question on EU exit negotiations

Brexit secretary David Davis responds in the House of Commons to an urgent question on EU exit negotiations

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David Davis has insisted Northern Ireland will not be "left behind" in the single market and customs union after Brexit as Theresa May works to get her botched negotiations back on track.

The Prime Minister was telephoning Democratic Unionist Party leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein leader Michelle O'Neill today for urgent talks as pressure mounted on her to break the logjam.

Mrs May's crunch withdrawal talks with the EU in Brussels on Monday ended without agreement after the DUP refused to accept proposals which would have shifted Northern Ireland's customs border to the Irish Sea in order to maintain a soft border with the Republic of Ireland.

She is now facing internal demands not to cut separate deals for different parts of the UK after the leaders of Scotland, Wales and London called for carve-outs to remain in the single market and customs union.

Mr Davis stressed that the idea that Northern Ireland would be left inside the single market or customs union to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland was a "falsehood".

Answering an urgent question in the House of Commons, the Brexit Secretary said: "The suggestion that we might depart the European Union but leave one part of the United Kingdom behind, still inside the single market and customs union - that is emphatically not something that the UK Government is considering.

"So when the First Minister of Wales complains about it, or the First Minister of Scotland says it's a reason to start banging the tattered drum of independence, or the Mayor of London says it justifies a hard border around the M25 - I say they're making a foolish mistake.

"No UK government would allow such a thing, let alone a Conservative and Unionist one."

Meeting Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy in Downing Street, Mrs May said: "Our talks with the European Union have made a lot of progress.

"There are still a couple of issues we need to work on, but we'll be reconvening in Brussels later this week as we look ahead to the December European Council.

"But I know in everything we do we want to ensure, particularly, that we recognise the needs of Spanish citizens here in the UK , and UK citizens living in Spain."

Mr Rajoy said the prime minister, who briefed Cabinet colleagues on Tuesday, was doing a "sterling job, fantastic job".

"The speech that was delivered by Mrs May in Florence was a very important speech, and I am personally convinced that the second stage of negotiations will begin soon," he said.

Mrs May plans to return to Brussels before the end of the week, with time running out to persuade leaders of the remaining 27 EU nations at a summit on December 14-15 that "sufficient progress" has been made on divorce issues to move Brexit negotiations on to their second phase on trade.

Her official spokesman rejected suggestions that the new deadline for agreement on divorce issues was Friday, insisting the government was working towards the European Council summit.

As Mrs May grappled to find a form of words acceptable to the DUP, its leader, Mrs Foster, shared a tweet from Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson insisting that any Brexit agreement must be UK-wide.

Ms Davidson said: "While I recognise the complexity of the current negotiations, no Government of the Conservative and Unionist Party should countenance any deal that compromises the political, economic or constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom."

Mr Davis said "all parties" in the negotiations were confident of progress, noting comments from senior EU figures Jean Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, whom Mrs May met on Monday.

But Ireland's deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney, insisted Dublin would not budge from its position on the border, while agreeing to work on "presentational issues".

"We don't want to give the impression the Irish Government is going to reverse away from the deal we felt we had in place and agreed yesterday."

Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon called on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to "get his act together" and unite with Remain-backing Tories to "force a different, less damaging Brexit leaving the UK in the single market and customs union".

And former top Foreign Office official Lord Ricketts said the row was was "damaging" for Mrs May and will leave EU leaders with the impression that she lacks the authority to get through Brexit negotiations.

"We're used to prime ministers going to Brussels and having a row with the EU and coming back without an agreement, but to go agree with the EU and then have a row on your own side is inconvenient," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

The Government's approach received a withering assessment from ex-Labour leader Ed Miliband, who tweeted: "What an absolutely ludicrous, incompetent, absurd, make it up as you go along, couldn't run a piss up in a brewery bunch of jokers there are running the government at the most critical time in a generation for the country."

Mr Davis said the Government was in the middle of an "ongoing round", and that, while progress had been made, a final conclusion had not yet been reached.

"I believe we are now close to concluding the first phase of negotiations and moving on to talk about our future trade relations," he said.

"There is much common understanding, and both sides agree that we must move forward together."

He told MPs the Government had always been clear that it wanted to protect "all elements" of the Good Friday Agreement to "maintain the common travel area and to protect associated rights".

Mr Davis said the Government recognised that the "integrity" of the EU single market and customs union must be respected after Brexit, but added that it was "equally clear we must respect the integrity of the United Kingdom".

But Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer claimed the last 24 hours had given a "new meaning to the phrase 'coalition of chaos"'.

"It's one thing to go to Brussels and fall out with those on the other side of the negotiating table; it's quite another to go to Brussels and fall out with those supposedly on your own side of the negotiating table."

Tory MPs clashed over the Government's Brexit strategy, with former cabinet minister Owen Paterson telling Mr Davis: "We are going to leave the single market and the customs union.

"Will he confirm that this week the integrity of the United Kingdom comes first and, if necessary, no deal is better than a bad deal?"

Mr Davis said Mr Paterson had made his point "well" and he had already confirmed the "integrity" of the UK comes first.

But Conservative former minister Anna Soubry said: "The British people are fed up to the back teeth with all of this.

"They want a solution. It may be regulatory alignment is the solution. But if it's good enough for Northern Ireland, it's good enough for the rest of the country.

"And we are a union and we will not allow one deal for one part of our great union and not for the other."

Ms Soubry said there was a "consensus" in the Commons, telling Mr Davis: "We are as one - there is a solution, I don't care how you wrap it up in whatever fancy words, but if it conveys the effect on British business of the single market and customs union, let's grab it, seize it, rub out the red lines, move on, work together, build a consensus and get a deal for our nation."

Jacob Rees-Mogg, Conservative MP for North East Somerset, asked Mr Davis if he shared his "sense of gratitude" to the DUP, noting: "[They] have helped Her Majesty's Government stick to its own policy in these negotiations.

"Is it not essential that the red lines on maintaining the United Kingdom and on regulatory divergence whence the benefits of leaving come are indelible red lines?"

Mr Davis replied: "The red line for me is delivering the best Brexit for Britain, and that's what we'll do."

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