Tanaiste rejects Nigel Dodds' Northern Ireland 'annexation' claims

Ireland's foreign affairs minister has rejected a suggestion by DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds that the Irish Government is discussing the "annexation" of Northern Ireland.

Tanaiste (deputy prime minister) Simon Coveney said Mr Dodds' words were "inflammatory" and insisted the Republic's position on the border issue had neither softened nor hardened during ongoing negotiations.

A joint report on the UK's EU withdrawal agreed in December by Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker included British proposals to keep the Irish border open after Brexit along with a third "backstop" option which would keep Northern Ireland in the Customs Union.

But a version published by the EU in February and agreed by the EU27 last month contained only the "backstop", effectively drawing a customs border down the Irish Sea, which a furious Mrs May said "no British prime minister could ever agree" to.

The Democratic Unionists are adamantly opposed to any regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, one of its red lines which would jeopardise the party's support for Mrs May's minority Government at Westminster.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds told the website Conservative Home: "Up to now Simon Coveney, the Department of Foreign Affairs, have talked in very, very aggressive terms.

"They've talked about almost the annexation of Northern Ireland."

But Mr Coveney, speaking to reporters after attending a lunch with business leaders in Londonderry on Wednesday, refuted the claim and described Mr Dodds' language as "unfortunate".

He said: "We're not looking to use Brexit to promote any kind of constitutional change on the island of Ireland, not at all. We don't want to see a border down the Irish Sea. We certainly don't want to see any border infrastructure on the island of Ireland.

"What we're doing is we are trying to take a position in these negotiations which tries to protect the status quo which has been hard won over the last two decades."

He said he would happily meet Mr Dodds to discuss the Irish Government's stance.

Mr Dodds said the EU definition of the backstop arrangements would have created a border down the Irish Sea.

"It is to all intents and purposes the break-up of the United Kingdom."

He added: "So I say that the effect of what they're saying would be the annexation of Northern Ireland. That would be utterly unacceptable."

But Mr Coveney said the agreed backstop must be implemented as an "insurance mechanism" for people living in border counties, adding that from there a future relationship can be negotiated.

He reiterated the Irish position that a political, rather than technological solution is needed for the border issue.

He told members of the press at the City Hotel in Derry: "This is not going to be solved by technology and cameras and scanning systems and drones on the border.

"What's required here is a backstop which is a political agreement which is consistent with maintaining full alignment with the rules of the customs union and single market in the areas that are necessary to allow for the all-island economy to function and north south cooperation to function and to protect the Good Friday Agreement.

"That's the commitment that's been made by both sides and now we're looking for a legal text which reflects that, that can be agreed between the two negotiating teams."

Mr Coveney said he also had two "good" meetings with both the SDLP and Alliance earlier in the day in relation to the collapsed Northern Ireland Assembly, and would be meeting British Secretary of State Karen Bradley again next week as work continues "to try and find a way forward".