London, Nov 27: Britain will decide on the Irish border issue only once talks about its post-Brexit arrangements with the European Union are under way, trade minister Liam Fox reiterated.
The British government's insistence on the stance is increasingly at odds with Irish demands for guarantees, ahead of a mid-December summit when EU leaders will decide if Brexit talks can move on to trade.
The impasse threatens to scupper hopes in London that "sufficient progress" has been made on the border, as well as citizens' rights and its divorce bill to leave the bloc, to move the negotiations into the next phase. "We don't want there to be a hard border but the UK is going to be leaving the customs union and the single market," Fox, a leading Brexiteer in the Cabinet, said on television.
"But we can't get a final answer to the Irish question until we get an idea of the end state -- and until we get into discussions with the EU on the end state that will be very difficult." He added: "So the quicker we can do that the better." Fox's comments came as Phil Hogan, the Irish Republic's EU agriculture commissioner, restated his country's threat to block Brexit talks progress unless it receives firm assurances of no hard border on the island.
Ireland has urged Britain -- or just Northern Ireland -- to remain within the single market or customs union, which Prime Minister Theresa May has repeatedly ruled out. Hogan told a British Sunday newspaper that May's ministers had "blind faith" in reaching a comprehensive free trade deal, and warned Dublin would "continue to play tough to the end" over the border.
Arlene Foster, the leader of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party -- which props up May's minority Conservative government in Westminster -- also weighed in, saying her party opposed any internal trade barrier within the UK. She also accused the Irish government of intransigence. Meanwhile John McDonnell, Britain's shadow chancellor, said he was "worried" by Fox's comments and remaining in the customs union or single market should remain an option.