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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 25 June 2018

Brexit is the greatest challenge for a new Irish generation: PM

Leo Varadkar cautions against return to bloodshed and borders

Ireland’s prime minister described Brexit as the great challenge for a new generation following decades of sectarian violence, and called for swift solutions during the complex negotiations to prevent a return to past divisions.

Leo Varadkar echoed the phrase of the European Union’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and warned that the “clock was ticking” as the EU and Britain sought to resolve their future relationship and avoid a damaging trade dispute.

Britain is due to leave the EU in March 2019 but officials said that progress had to be made on deciding the future status of the border between the Republic of Ireland and its northern neighbour, which is part of the UK, before talks could start on a comprehensive trade deal. Mr Varadkar said it was not clear if that would happen before a summit in October.

The impact of Brexit is likely to be most keenly felt by Ireland of the remaining 27 EU member states as it is the only one that shares a land border with Britain. The respective governments are also joint guarantors of a peace deal struck in 1998 that ended three decades of sectarian strife in Northern Ireland, known as the Troubles.

The two economies are closely integrated and the 310-mile border currently allows for free movement of people and goods. Attempts to control that flow are likely to be among the most controversial aspects of the Brexit talks.

Speaking during his first visit to Northern Ireland since his appointment as prime minister in June, Mr Varadkar warned against a return to the border of the past which was “a place of bloodshed and violence, of checkpoints…. a brutal physical manifestation of historic divisions and political failure.”

He added: “I have only a limited recollection of the border and the Troubles, but I know that I, like nearly everyone else on this island, do not want to go back to that,” he said.

He held open the prospect of a customs union between the EU and UK, which would allow for tariff-free trade across the border. “After all, we have one with Turkey. Surely we can have one with the United Kingdom?” he said in a speech at Queen’s University in Belfast.

“At a time when Brexit threatens to drive a wedge between north and south we need to build more bridges and fewer borders,” Mr Varadkar said.

He said a transitional period could be considered if a deal was not struck before the deadline. The prospect of an extended membership of the EU institutions after March 2019 has divided senior politicians in the UK government, with some hardliners calling for a hard break while others have called for a staged departure to ease the impact on business.