Ministers warned to be wary of meeting requests from UK
'AG talks were misrepresented in leaks to look like Brexit breakthrough'
Ministers have been warned not to be lured into Brexit discussions with their UK counterparts amid deep unease over how a meeting between the Irish and UK attorney generals was portrayed.
The Government believes details of Séamus Woulfe's meeting with Geoffrey Cox was leaked in advance to the UK media as part of a bid to "make it more than it was".
The engagement, which took place in Dublin last Friday, was reported as a discussion on how legally binding changes could be made to the backstop in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
However, the EU and Ireland have repeatedly stated that the Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened under any circumstances.
In a sign of the distrust between the two governments, senior Irish ministers were yesterday told to be sceptical about any requests for meetings from the UK.
"There is a fear they will try to 'bilateralise' ministers like what was done to the Attorney General," said a source.
As a member of the EU27, the Irish Government has always insisted that it cannot negotiate on a bilateral basis with the UK.
In the House of Commons yesterday, Prime Minister Theresa May cited the meeting between the two attorney generals as a sign of progress in her mission to get the backstop changed.
She noted that EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had maintained the EU's position that the Withdrawal Agreement cannot be reopened but insisted she would continue to lobby for changes to the backstop.
Mrs May said the backstop could be replaced by alternative arrangements to avoid a hard Border on the island of Ireland.
MPs were again told that the options on the table include a legally binding time limit to the existing backstop or a unilateral exit clause - both of which have been roundly rejected by the EU.
"Given that both sides agree that we do not ever want to use the backstop and that if we did so it would be temporary, we believe it is reasonable to ask for legally binding changes to that effect," the prime minister said.
She urged MPs to give her more time to negotiate a deal for the UK exit on March 29.
"The talks are at a crucial stage," Mrs May told parliament. "We now all need to hold our nerve to get the changes this House requires and deliver Brexit on time."
The leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, accused her of running down the clock with sham negotiations to pressure parliament into backing her deal.
The EU's Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said on Monday the bloc would agree to tweak the political declaration on post-Brexit EU-UK ties that form part of the exit package, to reflect a plan for a closer future relationship that could remove the need for the backstop.
Mrs May's efforts to win over a majority of MPs for a deal will not be helped by reports of a private conversation involving her chief Brexit adviser Olly Robbins.
ITV has reported that he expects MPs to be left with a choice of either backing the current deal or a significant delay to Brexit.
Mr Robbins is said to have been overheard in a London bar telling colleagues: "The issue is whether Brussels is clear on the terms of extension. In the end they will probably just give us an extension."
He said the backstop was not originally designed as a "safety net" but as "a bridge" to a long-term relationship between the UK and EU. Mrs May has always denied this.
"The big clash all along is the 'safety net'," Mr Robbins said. "We agreed a bridge but it came out as a 'safety net'."
The UK parliament is to hold a debate on Brexit tomorrow but no date has been set for another vote to approve or reject Mrs May's deal.
Meanwhile, a contested report has claimed that net migration to the UK could increase by more than 100,000 under the Government's post-Brexit plans.
The measure - the difference between the numbers arriving and departing could reach 380,000 a year if the proposed new system is introduced, according to campaign group Migration Watch UK. But the Home Office described the report's claims as "inaccurate and untrue".