Sunday 18 August 2019

Varadkar headed for backstop showdown with new British PM

Boris Johnson set to become prime minister but already faces revolt from within his own party

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Ireland is on a collision course with the new occupant of Downing Street as Leo Varadkar seeks urgent talks with the incoming British prime minister on the backstop.

It is widely expected that Boris Johnson will be confirmed today as the new UK premier.

A number of sources in Dublin told the Irish Independent they believe Mr Johnson is not as committed to a disorderly Brexit as portrayed.

However, they believe the message that the EU will not cave on the backstop "needs to be hammered home" to the new prime minister.

Fianna Fáil is backing this position for the moment, believing that the Government cannot "blink".

Mr Varadkar is expected to speak to the incoming prime minister at some stage this week - and a meeting may be possible in the coming weeks.

Vulnerable: Simon Coveney says Ireland is exposed by Brexit. Photo: PA
Vulnerable: Simon Coveney says Ireland is exposed by Brexit. Photo: PA

In the meantime, the Irish Government also plans to talk up its readiness for a no-deal Brexit with visits to ports and the Border region.

Even before taking on the EU, Mr Johnson will first have to face down a domestic revolt.

Last night, Alan Duncan quit as foreign minister after hatching a plot to persuade Queen Elizabeth to reject Mr Johnson as prime minister.

The Tory MP resigned in protest at a potential Johnson-led government before lobbying Speaker John Bercow to hold an emergency Commons debate on the new leader in a move that could have potentially dealt Theresa May's successor a fatal blow before he formally took office.

After hitting out at the "haphazard and ramshackle" would-be prime minister - who used to be his boss at the Foreign Office - Mr Duncan then wrote to Mr Bercow to suggest Mrs May might be minded to advise the queen against appointing Mr Johnson as her replacement.

The move was rejected by Mr Bercow. However, up to 12 ministers are expected to resign in protest at Mr Johnson's apparent willingness to take the UK out of the EU on October 31 without a deal.

Voting ended in the Conservative Party leadership contest yesterday, with little to indicate that Jeremy Hunt could unseat the former foreign secretary.

European officials say Mr Johnson's arrival at the top of British politics will not reset the debate on Brexit.

There are currently no plans for a bilateral meeting in Dublin or London, but sources said it was a real possibility in the coming weeks.

The Irish Government has always been keen not to engage in direct negotiations with the UK side on Brexit - but officials see some value in outlining the value of the backstop directly to Mr Johnson. Any negotiations have been handled by the EU team led by Michel Barnier.

Key to Mr Johnson's campaign was a promise to scrap the Irish backstop and renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement achieved by Mrs May.

Brexit will be front and centre when the Cabinet meets in Donegal, one of the counties most affected by Brexit, on Thursday.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney has described Mr Johnson as "a very intelligent man". He said the Irish Government would have to work with "whoever the British prime minister is".

The Tánaiste said Ireland had spent three years trying to resolve "the complexities" that Brexit has thrown up.

"Unfortunately, Ireland is in a vulnerable and exposed position," Mr Coveney said, adding that the Withdrawal Agreement is "balanced and fair".

He said the Government would work with London to look at an "innovative way to try to get us past this impasse".

At the MacGill Summer School in Glenties, Co Donegal, former Ukip MP Douglas Carswell said Irish people didn't fully understand Euroscepticism and often argued it was "a hang-up from the age of empire".

He said no deal "is most likely now", adding that there are "perfectly reasonable" technological ways of solving the Border issue.

"I would recommend MPs vote for the deal if there was a time limit on the backstop," he said.

The Government has repeatedly said a time limit would render the backstop meaningless in the long term.

Fianna Fáil is backing the Government's attempts to fight back against the hardline of the incoming prime minister.

"We are all hoping for a deep sense of reality dawning when he takes office as prime minister," the Opposition party's Brexit spokesperson Lisa Chambers said.

She said the notice of erecting a physical border could not be countenanced.

"Could you imagine telling the people of Germany that we plan to rebuild the Berlin wall? Physical infrastructure represents division and harks back to a dark time in our country's past that no one wants to revisit, particularly the people of Northern Ireland and Border communities," the Mayo TD said.

Irish Independent

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