Scotland and Northern Ireland will not be able to attain special EU status in the wake of Brexit, Theresa Villiers has insisted.
The Northern Ireland Secretary dismissed the suggestion that regions that backed a Remain vote could have a relationship with the EU distinct from England and Wales, where majorities favoured a UK exit.
While the referendum result has raised the prospect of another vote on Scottish independence and prompted Sinn Fein to demand a border poll on Irish unity, pro-Remainers in Scotland and Northern Ireland have also called for special measures to ensure their EU links are maintained, whatever the constitutional consequences of Brexit.
Ms Villiers, who campaigned for a Leave vote, said the UK would be treated as one nation in negotiations with the EU.
The Secretary of State was in Belfast for a day of talks on Brexit and other Northern Ireland-specific issues with the region’s political leaders and Irish Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan.
“EU rules are very clear, membership is at member state level,” she said.
“It’s a national question, it’s not possible within EU rules to have a part of a country being part of the European Union.
“So this decision has been made, the people of the United Kingdom have voted to leave the European Union – that decision is going to be respected, that’s what the Government will take forward.”
Ms Villiers said “particular interests” in Northern Ireland, primarily the fact it shares a land border with an EU state, would need to be “protected” in the negotiations.
The Conservative MP again moved to allay fears expressed by communities on both sides of the Irish border that free movement of goods and people will be curtailed after Brexit.
“I believe we can keep a border which is as open and free-flowing as it is today,” she said.
“I believe it is in the interests of both the UK and Irish governments to do that. It’s clear both governments want to keep an open border. I believe, in those circumstances, it’s going to be deliverable. It will take some common sense, it will take some negotiation, but it’s not rational for the European Union to want to block something which is in the interests of one of its remaining member states – i.e. Ireland.”
Under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday peace accord, the Secretary of State has the power to trigger a border poll if evidence emerges of a public opinion shift in support of changing Northern Ireland’s constitutional status.
Ms Villiers has made clear that the referendum result has not changed her view that the criteria for calling a vote have not been met.
“This is the sort of matter that we keep constantly under review, as it’s an element of the Belfast Agreement, but there isn’t anything that indicates that there is a change of position,” she said.