Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said preventing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic was “a much bigger issue than trade” and warned that his government was “not going to move on” without written guarantees from the UK.
His comments confirm the Irish border as the biggest stumbling block a breakthrough in Brexit talks when EU leaders gather next month.
On Monday Mrs May’s cabinet signed off a financial settlement of up to £40 billion in exchange for better post-Brexit trade terms than the current Canada-EU agreement, but talks will not begin unless all 27 EU governments agree that issues relating to citizens’ rights and the Irish border have also been resolved.
Yesterday Mrs May’s allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party stoked a war of words with the Dublin government, accusing the Irish Prime Minister of being “reckless” with the peace process in the north.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said Leo Varadkar should “know better” than to “play around” when Brexit talks and attempts to restart Stormont power sharing are both in such a “critical phase”.
At an economic summit in Sweden last week, Mr Varadkar said assurances that Brexit would not mean a “return to the borders of the past” were insufficient and demanded a written account of measures to stop a hard border.
Ms Foster said the Taoiseach’s warning that Brexit could endanger the Northern Irish peace process was “a very careless thing to say”.
She told the BBC: “Some people are taking their moment in the sun, to try and get the maximum in relation to the negotiations - and I understand that but you shouldn’t play about with Northern Ireland particularly at a time when we’re trying to bring about devolved government again.”
Yesterday Mr Coveney insisted there was a “lot of solidarity” in Brussels for demands that the UK provide greater assurances.
He told the Evening Standard: “Anybody who thinks that just because the financial settlement issue gets resolved... that somehow Ireland will have a hand put on the shoulder and be told, ‘Look, it’s time to move on.’ Well, we’re not going to move on.”
Meanwhile, Brexit Secretary David Davis said the UK was prepared for the possibility of not securing a deal with the EU.
He told a conference in London: “While I have said I’m confident that we can get a deal with the European Union, of course, the alternative is possible, not probable, but it’s possible, that we don’t get a deal.
“The department I run, Dexeu for short, isn’t called the department for getting a deal come what may, it is the Department for Exiting the European Union.”