Europe

Irish unity should not be part of Brexit debate - Ahern

Bertie Ahern
Image caption Bertie Ahern served as taoiseach between 1997 to 2008 and played a key role in the peace process

Former Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Bertie Ahern has said the "last thing" he wants from Brexit is people raising the issue of a vote on Irish unity.

Mr Ahern was giving evidence to an Irish parliamentary committee examining the impact of Brexit.

He said there would be a time for a discussion on unity, but it should not be part of the Brexit discussions.

"To have a sectarian headcount now is the last thing we need," Mr Ahern said.

The former taoiseach also said the EU was "not very good" to David Cameron when he sought a new deal ahead of a Brexit referendum.

Image caption Theresa May has said she wants to see a 'frictionless, seamless border' between Northern Ireland and the Republic

He told the committee he thought the UK and EU would reach a deal in the two-year Article 50 negotiating period, but that it would not be "a full agreement".

Mr Ahern foresaw difficulties for the Prime Minister Theresa May when the implications of transitional arrangements with the EU become clear to Eurosceptics in her party.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Taoiseach Enda Kenny and Theresa May met in Dublin at the end of January

He said that, on the basis of what British ministers had said, he did not foresee a problem with free movement of people across the border, including non-Irish EU nationals, after Brexit.

However, Mr Ahern warned that there could be "a big problem" for the movement of goods as a result of the UK leaving the EU customs union.

Unless customs were in "some way technologically handled, it will be a disaster", he said.

The UK and Irish governments have repeatedly said they do not want a return to customs posts at the border.

'Flexible and imaginative'

The European Union's draft guidelines for Brexit negotiations call for "flexible and imaginative solutions" to avoid a hard border.

The EU also says that any solution needs to "respect the integrity of the EU legal order".

Sinn Féin, which made gains in last month's Stormont election, has insisted there is an urgent need for a reunification referendum after the UK voted to pull out of the European Union.

The majority of voters in Northern Ireland backed remaining within the EU by 56% to 44%.

The DUP has accused Sinn Féin of creating further uncertainty and division by calling for a border poll.

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