UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s pledge to maintain a Common Travel Area with Ireland once Britain leaves the EU has been thrown in doubt by senior Government ministers and key figures in Brussels.
In her long-awaited Brexit speech, Mrs May said she would seek to retain free movement between Ireland and Britain once negotiations begin in March.
Mrs May said she did not want to see the return of a hard border between the North and Republic, and said this would be a key demand during talks.
Mrs May also insisted she intended to take Britain entirely out of the EU single market – and warned the UK would not seek a “partial” or “associate” membership of the union.
The Government welcomed Mrs May’s commitment to the Common Travel Area with Ireland, but said it was “under no illusions” of the challenges it was facing and conceded a ‘hard Brexit’ was inevitable.
Privately, Cabinet ministers raised concerns over how Mrs May would convince her EU counterparts to allow Britain to maintain a Common Travel Area with Ireland, but not with other member states.
A Government source said that Taoiseach Enda Kenny emphasised the importance of no return of a hard border and maintaining the integrity of the common travel area with Mrs May before her speech.
Meanwhile, in Brussels one senior diplomat said the speech by Mrs May was “not very realistic” and signalled very hard and long upcoming negotiations.
“The decision that Britain is totally leaving not just the single market but also the customs union has huge ramifications for trade and the threat of tariffs. This is not necessarily good news for Ireland,” the diplomat said.
Mrs May is due to visit Ireland before the end of the month to hold formal discussion with Mr Kenny about Britain’s plans to leave the EU.