Celebrations and protests across Ireland as UK finally leaves EU

The hour when the UK officially left the EU was greeted with both celebrations and protests in Ireland.

As pro-EU activists held demonstrations along the Irish border, Brexiteers waved union flags, sang God Save The Queen and heard the powerful beat of the Lambeg drum at the gates of the seat of Northern Ireland’s devolved government to celebrate the landmark moment.

At Stormont, DUP MLA Jim Wells described it as a “happy day for our nation, this means that our nation of Great Britain and Northern Ireland moves out of the bondage of Europe to the freedom of the rest of the world”, before leading the count down from ten to cheers as the clock struck 11pm.

Throughout the day, focus centred on future trading relations on the island of Ireland as opponents and supporters of Brexit prepared to mark the UK’s exit from the EU.

Fears among Remainers over the prospect of a hard border on the island have dissipated somewhat, while pro-Brexit unionists are far from happy with an agreement that treats Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK.

On Friday morning, Irish premier Leo Varadkar warned that Ireland will take a very firm line in post-Brexit trade talks.

The Taoiseach insisted that fishing and farming communities will be protected during the upcoming negotiations on the future relationship.

Mr Varadkar told RTE a lot of work remained outstanding but he was confident a good deal could be reached.

“We want free trade with the UK with no tariffs, no quotas, as little bureaucracy and as few checks as possible,” he said.

Brexit
Members of Border Communities Against Brexit arrive with their new poster at Stormont (Brian Lawless/PA)

DUP leader Arlene Foster notably marked Brexit night by appearing on RTE flagship Late Late Show – a move widely interpreted as a conciliatory gesture to the Irish Republic following strained relations during the Brexit process.

Unionists are concerned at post-Brexit arrangements that will see Northern Ireland continue to comply with many EU rules as a way to avoid a hardening of the Irish border.

Ms Foster, the first DUP leader to appear on the show, said: “We are leaving the European Union tonight, the United Kingdom leaves, but that doesn’t mean we are not still neighbours and I wanted to send out message that we are and will continue to be neighbours.”

In a wide-ranging interview, Ms Foster insisted that Brexit would not bring a united Ireland any closer.

Well before sunrise on Brexit day, Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney toured Dublin Port at 5am as the first ships docked and unloaded.

He rejected claims from election rivals Fianna Fail, which branded his visit a “stunt” and accused his Fine Gael party of trying to politicise Brexit.

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Tanaiste Simon Coveney speaks to media at Dublin Port (Aoife Moore/PA)

“Put quite simply, all of the plans, all of the manifestos that are being debated and discussed in this election campaign, much of that is just aspirational if we don’t maintain and protect a strong economy through the challenges of Brexit,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said the refusal of Prime Minister Boris Johnson to contemplate extending the transition period beyond the end of 2020 was “cause for concern”.

Speaking at the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA) in Dublin on Friday, Ms McDonald stated that negotiating a future relationship in 11 months is a “tight timeline” and represents a risk of no deal.

“We must at all costs avoid this because we must prevent barriers to trade and commerce and our objective must be to avoid slowing business down or putting the cost of doing business up, east, west, or north to south,” she said.

Ms McDonald added that people from all traditions and backgrounds see Irish unity as the “best way, only way” to stay within the European Union.

“Many with a British or unionist identity are now actively considering the merits of reunification, not to become republicans, but to remain European,” she added.

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