- Theresa May’s spokesman says Northern Ireland’s place in the Customs Union is a “matter for negotiation.”
- May has previously insisted all parts of the UK will leave after Brexit.
- Downing Street sources row back from comments.
- UK has yet to agree a solution to avoiding a hard border with Ireland.
LONDON – The UK government’s Brexit policy was thrown into confusion this morning after a spokesperson for Prime Minister Theresa May suggested that Northern Ireland could remain in the Customs Union after Brexit.
The spokesperson told journalists at a briefing attended by Business Insider, that the question of whether Northern Ireland would remain in the customs union was “a matter for negotiation.”
The government has previously insisted that all parts of the UK will leave the Customs Union after Brexit.
“That is a matter for negotiations,” the spokesman said.
“We need to continue to negotiate to find an innovative way forward.”
Asked whether it was possible Northern Ireland would remain a part of the Customs Union after all, they added:
“That would be a matter for negotiation.”
Downing Street sources later rowed back from the comments, telling reporters that there had in fact been no change in policy, leaving the question of Britain’s policy on Northern Ireland up in the air.
The question of Northern Ireland’s place in the Customs Union is central to Brexit negotiations and highly controversial.
The UK government’s policy of leaving the customs system has raised the possibility of there being a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, something which is opposed by all sides and which would be a major threat to the peace process in the province.
The UK government has yet to set out firm proposals for avoiding a border but has repeatedly insisted that “innovative solutions” including the creation of a “virtual” or technological border between the two countries.
The Irish government has called for Britain to remain in the Customs Union.
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said on Thursday that technological solutions “no matter how clever” won’t prevent a physical border, adding that staying inside a customs union – whether it be the existing Customs Union or a new customs union system containing the EU and Northern Ireland – would be the best solution.
Coveney added that he believed the EU27 would not hesitate to block Brexit talks from moving beyond phase one if it was felt that the British side’s proposal for avoiding a hard border in Ireland was not satisfactory.
“I don’t think Ireland will have to block anything on its own,” he told the committee.
“There is absolute solidarity across the 27 countries here. They are with Ireland on this because we are making a fair but very firm case and I believe other European countries will stick with Ireland”
However, DUP leader Arlene Foster told the Today programme on Friday that there must be “no perception that Northern Ireland is in any way different from the rest of the United Kingdom, because that would cause us great difficulties in relation to trade. The single market that really matters to us is the single market of the United Kingdom.”
May’s opponents accused the government of “descending into utter chaos” over the issue.
“Theresa May’s Brexit plans have descended into utter chaos on the same day she’s trying to secure a breakthrough in negotiations with the EU,” Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader Jo Swinson said.
“The Government is meant to be planning for the coming decades, but their positions don’t even last 40 minutes.
“The simplest way to solve the issue of the Northern Ireland border would be for the UK to stay in the single market and customs union in the long term.
“Ministers must change course and stop recklessly ruling this out as an option.”