Business Brexit

Sunday 18 November 2018

Brexit: Ireland willing to consider proposals for review of border proposals - Taoiseach

  • Brexit backstop proposal during ‘robust’ talks with Coveney left officials ‘stunned’
  • Coveney insists he made it 'crystal clear' Ireland will not accept time-limited Brexit back-stop
  • 'This is the Irish position and it is the EU position too' - Coveney
  • Leo Varadkar and Theresa May recommitted to avoiding hard border in phonecall
  • Rumours are mounting that Dominic Raab might resign in protest - Telegraph
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images
Leo Varadkar and Prime Minister Theresa May during a bilateral meeting in Brussels

Kevin Doyle, Cormac McQuinn and Ralph Riegel

THE Taoiseach has indicated that Ireland is willing to consider proposals for a review clause in relation to the backstop for the Irish border.

However, Leo Varadkar has insisted that the outcome of any review cannot involve a unilateral decision to end the backstop.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is ‘dancing on head of pin’. Photo: PA
British Prime Minister Theresa May is ‘dancing on head of pin’. Photo: PA

A spokesperson for the Taoiseach said he spoke to British Prime Minister Theresa May this morning by phone.

"She sought the call in order to update the Taoiseach on the current state of the Brexit negotiations. Both leaders emphasised their commitment to avoiding a hard border and the need for a legally operable backstop," the spokesperson said.

"The Prime Minister raised the possibility of a review mechanism for the backstop. The Taoiseach indicated an openness to consider proposals for a review, provided that it was clear that the outcome of any such review could not involve a unilateral decision to end the backstop.

"He recalled the prior commitments made that the backstop must apply ‘unless and until’ alternative arrangements are agreed.

Simon Coveney Photo: Steve Humphreys
Simon Coveney Photo: Steve Humphreys

"They both expressed the hope that the negotiations could conclude in a satisfactory manner as soon as possible."

Earlier, Mr Varadkar said that the United Kingdom is "in many ways a divided kingdom."

Asked to respond to demands from Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab for the backstop to have a three month expiry date, Mr Varadkar said Ireland would never agree to such a proposal.

"One thing we can’t countenance is any idea that there’d be three month limit on the backstop. A backstop with a three month limit on it, or an expiry date of that nature, isn’t worth the paper its written on,” he told reporters in Dublin this morning.

Mr Raab made the suggestion during a “robust” secret meeting with Tánaiste Simon Coveney last Tuesday.

However, it has been dismissed as an attempt by the Secretary to curry favour with hardline Brexiteers.

UK Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab. (Aaron Chown/PA)
UK Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab. (Aaron Chown/PA)

Mrs May is expected to bring proposals to Cabinet tomorrow which would see the whole of the UK locked into a customs arrangement with the EU, not just Northern Ireland. This will ensure there is no need for a border on this island.

Speaking about the latest developments, Mr Varadkar said the UK has already signed up to a legally operable backstop that will remain in place “unless and until” a new agreement to supersede it is reached.

“It’s reasonable for us to expect a country like the United Kingdom to stand by its commitments,” he said.

The Taoiseach said it has been “a problem all along” that the UK is arguing with itself over how to approach the Brexit negotiations.

“The United Kingdom is in many ways a divided kingdom. People are split 50/50 on whether they want to leave the European Union or not, the Cabinet seems divided, the Government seems divided, parliament is divided. That has made it very difficult to come to an agreement,” Mr Varadkar said.

Meanwhile, Mr Coveney insisted he made it "crystal clear" to Mr Raab during the meeting last week that Ireland will not accept any time-limited Brexit back-stop arrangement.

Mr Coveney's warning, issued as he opened a Fine Gael constituency office in Kanturk, Co Cork, came as Mr Raab was reported to have privately demanded that Prime Minister Theresa May sanction a clause allowing the UK to terminate any backstop arrangement at just three months notice.

The Tanaiste warned that Ireland's position with the back-stop to protect a no-infrastructure Northern Ireland border has been clear, consistent and remains fully supported by the EU.

But he said that the potential remains for the draft of a UK withdrawal agreement to be reached with the EU by the end of November.

"I had dinner with Dominic Raab in London last week," he said.

"It was a robust exchange of views but it was a respectful exchange of views."

"It is true that Dominic Raab outlined some thoughts that he had in relation to the back-stop and the review mechanisms for the back-stop."

"But I made it absolutely crystal clear to him that Ireland and, in my view, the EU could never support a time limited back-stop or a back-stop that could be ended unilaterally by the UK alone after any review mechanism in the future."

"That wouldn't be a back-stop at all."

The hardline stance adopted by the British “stunned” Irish officials, and was viewed as a setback to clinching a Brexit deal this week.

British Prime Minister Theresa May will bring plans to avoid a hard Border to her divided cabinet tomorrow.

The plan sees the whole of Britain remaining in the EU customs union – not just Northern Ireland. This would negate the need for checks at the Border.

Mr Raab’s proposal to Mr Coveney was that within three months of the backstop coming into force – or six months at the very most – Britain would have the right to trigger a “review mechanism” in which the backstop would persist only by “mutual consent”.

British media reports that Mrs May had already concluded a “secret deal”, were dismissed by negotiators.

“If anything, things are now going backwards,” one official said.

Amid a fightback from the Irish government, speculation is mounting that Dominic Raab may resign if there is no time limit applied to the backstop.

Tory Party Brexiteers have expressed their support for Mr Raab in this current stand-off.

"Dominic is right on this and his position is a very practical reading of the Brexiteer view," Tory MEP David Campbell Bannerman told ‘The Daily Telegraph’, warning that "the issue is powerful enough to take us into possible resigning territory."

"If the Government wants to pursue [the deal being reported] then it can't, it shouldn't and every cabinet minister arguing for it should resign because they're not going to deliver on the result of the referendum and that's not acceptable," Tory MP Marcus Fysh said.

Speculation about Mr Raab's future was prompted by HuffPost's Paul Waugh and ITV's Robert Peston.  "What none of us know is whether [the backstop row] is theatre for the benefit of the ERG, so he can say to them that he did his best to rein in the PM", an MP told ITV. “Or whether he is really on the point of quitting”.

Sources close to the Brexit Secretary poured cold water on speculation that he might be on the verge of resigning, telling the Telegraph that idea he might was "not recognised".

This morning, Mr Coveney took to Twitter to say that Ireland's position "remains consistent".

"The Irish position remains consistent and v clear that a 'time-limited backstop' or a backstop that could be ended by UK unilaterally would never be agreed to by IRE or EU. These ideas are not backstops at all and don’t deliver on previous UK commitments," he tweeted.

Later this morning, Mr Coveney said: "I don't think I could have been any clearer. I think it is unfortunate that the content of that (Raab) conversation has been leaked but that is politics.

"That is why I felt the need to clarify the position this morning."

Mr Coveney insisted Ireland's position has been consistent and is staunchly supported by the EU.

"If you look at the EU deputy chief negotiator, she has retweeted my Tweet this morning."

"This is making a very clear but respectful message in the retweeting of that. This is the Irish position and it is the EU position too."

Mr Coveney stressed that Ireland has absolutely no issue with a UK-wide customs union for the EU.

In fact, he said Ireland would prefer no checks between Ireland and the UK.

 The Cork TD said he couldn't predict when a deal would be hammered out - but he said the potential to reach a deal by the end of November was clearly there.

 "I don't control the time levers here," he said.

 "What I would say is that it is possible to get these issues resolved in terms of a draft text on the terms of a withdrawal treaty this month."

Ahead of Mrs May's cabinet meeting, sources here said the situation was at its "most sensitive yet" and she will be "dancing on the head of a pin" to secure agreement on the deal in her government.

The temporary customs arrangement believed to be on the table would see all of the UK remain closely aligned to EU trade rules for a time period.

However, in order for the EU to accept this compromise, Mrs May must convince her colleagues and the DUP to agree that Northern Ireland can only opt out of the customs union when another mechanism of ensuring a soft Border is agreed.

The Irish Government is opposed to any suggestion the backstop would have an "exit clause" as suggested in the 'Sunday Times' report.

The article quotes a senior Whitehall source as saying: "The PM will be able to say there's no more backstop, we've got rid of that - success. There's an exit mechanism - success... The small print is that Ireland is f*****."

Downing Street claimed the report about the deal is "all speculation".

A spokesperson said: "The prime minister has been clear that we are making good progress on the future relationship and 95pc of the Withdrawal Agreement is now settled and negotiations are ongoing."

Here, Labour leader Brendan Howlin said he remained "very fearful" Irish interests could be sacrificed by Europe to secure a deal and said Ireland has to be "vigilant".

Mr Howlin said he was concerned Ireland had been "boxed into a corner where the backstop issue is the one remaining issue" and faced incredible pressure as a result.

He told RTÉ's 'The Week in Politics': "Unfortunately that's the position that we find ourselves in now."

Junior minister Damien English dismissed the suggestion that Ireland was "going to be shafted", insisting it was "not true".

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan said he wouldn't add to what he described as "speculation".

He said there was a "rapidly ticking clock" but that minds were now being focused with a view to concluding a deal and he welcomed that.

Mr Coveney's spokesperson said the EU had been united through the Brexit process and the UK had given written commitments that the Withdrawal Agreement would give a legal guarantee of no return to a hard Border in Ireland in any circumstance.

"This is the backstop," he added, saying the UK had agreed that it would apply "unless and until" a close future relationship eliminated any need for Border infrastructure and checks.

The statement said that senior EU figures like Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker and chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier "and indeed Theresa May herself" have all said there will not be a deal "without a legal guarantee of no hard Border in Ireland".

He added: "We hope a deal can be done but we're not there yet."

There is the prospect of a special EU summit later this month if a deal on the backstop can be reached later this week.

Irish Independent

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