Reg Empey: 'Unionists will never agree to a border up the middle of the Irish Sea'

Former Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain is proposing partition of the UK, a senior unionist claimed.

Mr Hain is expected to argue that Northern Ireland should be part of the same customs union and single market as the Republic of Ireland after Brexit.

However Ulster Unionist chairman Lord Empey accused the Labour peer of dangerous thinking which would damage the local economy.

He said: "This idea amounts to the partition of the UK and is Sinn Féin's policy.

"Unionists will never agree to a border up the middle of the Irish Sea, which would be the outworking of Lord Hain's proposal."

The UK's only land border with an EU state after Brexit will be between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Its future is one of the first issues for discussion during Brussels negotiations, with those living either side of the frontier fearing they could be particularly disadvantaged by the divorce settlement.

UK Brexit Secretary David Davis said a good discussion was held on retaining the open border between the Republic of Ireland and the North during Brussels talks with the EU last week.

A debate is being held in the British House of Lords today on the issue.

Former UUP leader Reg Empey said more than 60% of Northern Ireland's trade was with Britain.

He said: "Why on earth would we agree to cut ourselves off from the mainland to protect 15% of our business and put 85% of it at risk? It is simply nonsensical.

"The solution is to agree new arrangements with the EU.

"Other countries on mainland Europe coexist amicably so why can't we do so as well?"

Mr Hain is likely to warn against the risk of the border becoming just another bargaining chip in the negotiations with Brussels during a major speech.

He was Northern Ireland Secretary under Labour from 2005-2007, helping steer the peace process when the IRA was decommissioning weapons and Stormont devolution was being restored.

He is planning to say: "What is proposed is not a Brexit for the United Kingdom nor even for Britain.

"It is a Brexit for the ideological hard right and we go down that path at our great peril, especially for Northern Ireland and the hard-won peace and democratic process which, tragically, this Government seems so airily causal about and so ignorantly indifferent to."

The peer is expected to claim the British Government's latest proposals that the vast majority of smaller cross-border businesses continue trading exempt from restrictions constitutes not so much a frictionless border as a telepathic one.

"This is less a solution to the problem than pie-in-the-sky fantasy."

The Irish Government has already said Northern Ireland should retain the benefits of the European customs union after Brexit.

Mr Hain is expected to say: "In my view the only way of resolving the border conundrum is for Northern Ireland to be within the same customs union and single market as the Republic: either Northern Ireland alone or preferably with the whole of the UK."

Sinn Féin South Down MP Chris Hazzard said the Lords debate was pointless.

"This British government, with the support of the DUP, has already shown their disregard for the impact of Brexit on the lives and livelihoods of the people of Ireland, north and south.

"They explicitly rejected protections for the Good Friday Agreement and are wedded to a delusional "frictionless" border.

"The solution to the disastrous consequences of Brexit does not lie with hereditary peers in London.

"Special designated status within the EU is the only way to protect the democratic wishes of citizens in Ireland."

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