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.
Pro-EU activists demonstrated on the Irish border ahead of a series of late night rallies on the frontier, while Brexiteers were preparing to hold a party at the gates of the Stormont parliament in Belfast to celebrate the landmark moment.
The events were not expected to draw huge crowds, with advocates on both sides of the debate harbouring mixed feelings about the deal that secured the withdrawal.
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.
Irish premier Leo Varadkar earlier 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.
Around a third of Ireland’s fish like mackerel and prawns comes from UK waters.
“Having control of their own fishing grounds is not going to be much use to them unless they can export to the EU,” he said.
“That is why it gets tied up with trade and we are going to take a very firm line on that to make sure that we protect our coastal communities and our fishing industry.”
On Friday, UK Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said he could not guarantee frictionless trade after Brexit.
He said the UK was free to go its own way on rules and regulations.
“We want trade to be as frictionless as possible but the EU is clear, you can only have fully frictionless trade if you accept all of their rules, if you accept all their laws, you are subordinate to their judges, you are subordinate to their political structures,” he said.
“We want free trade with the UK with no tariffs, no quotas, as little bureaucracy and as few checks as possible,” he said.
DUP MP Sammy Wilson, a vocal Brexiteer, said the UK was breaking free from the “EU prison” but warned that Northern Ireland could not be left behind.
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.
“As we leave the dank dungeon which has bound our economy, stunted our growth and restricted our economic freedom, it is important that the government does not allow the EU to continue its control through conditions attached in the negotiations which now have to follow about what our relationship is outside the walls of the European Union,” said Mr Wilson.
“It is especially important for Northern Ireland that the concessions given to the EU in the Withdrawal Agreement do not leave us in the EU prison yard or acting as a part of the United Kingdom released only under licence.
“It is already apparent from what EU negotiators are saying that they will be aiming to keep Britain on a very short leash and if the Prime Minister and the government do not robustly oppose the EU in these future negotiations then Brexit will not be done.”
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.
“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.
“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.
In the final hours before the UK officially leaves the EU, a series of protests have been planned along the Irish border.
Brexit-backers will later hold a celebration party at the gates of the seat of Northern Ireland’s devolved government from 10.30pm for a countdown to 11pm.