The great Brexit Border backtrack

Varadkar's backstop compromise 'is a hazardous move', says FF

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Damien Eagers / INM

Kevin Doyle

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s willingness to consider a “review” process for the so-called Brexit backstop has sparked fears it is not as watertight as previously boasted.

Desperate efforts to get a final deal across the line led to UK Prime Minister Theresa May phoning the Taoiseach yesterday seeking an agreement on a mechanism which would allow it to exit the backstop – the guarantee that there will be no return of a border on island of Ireland.

Mr Varadkar expressed “an openness to consider proposals for a review”, raising concerns that the rush to get a deal could see unexpected compromise on the Irish side.

Fianna Fáil, which has been generally supportive of the Government’s Brexit strategy, last night claimed Mr Varadkar was embarking on a “significant and potentially hazardous change in direction”.

The party’s Brexit spokesperson Lisa Chambers said she is “very worried the backstop is not as watertight as has been previously indicated”.

Mrs May is fighting an uphill battle to get her cabinet united behind a Brexit deal that will ensure there will never be a hard Border on this island under any circumstances.

She wants to gather enough support for a UK-wide customs arrangement in time for EU leaders to call a special summit later this month.

However, amid the confusion, hopes that a Brexit deal would be revealed today have faded dramatically.

A number of ministers, including Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, are not prepared to allow the UK to enter a special customs arrangement unless there is a clearly defined exit period.

Mr Raab told Tánaiste Simon Coveney last week that he wants the UK to be able to walk away from the customs arrangement after just three months.

This demand was ruled out of order by the Taoiseach who said "an expiry date of that nature, isn't worth the paper it's written on".

It is understood Mrs May wants to win over MPs by presenting the 'review' as a way for the UK to leave the customs arrangement in the short term. Fianna Fáil's Brexit spokesperson Lisa Chambers said she is "very worried that the backstop is not as watertight as has been previously indicated".

"The Taoiseach and Tánaiste have repeatedly said that there will be no hard Border on the island of Ireland and that the backstop cannot be time-limited.

"The Irish people have taken them at their word and will not accept any blurring of those lines at this late stage," she said.

Details of the prime minister's exchange with Mr Varadkar have been interpreted differently by officials in London and Dublin.

Mrs May's office said they agreed that the backstop - which would see Northern Ireland remain under EU trade rules unless a better deal is struck - should only be a "temporary arrangement".

"In order to ensure that the backstop, if ever needed, would be temporary, the prime minister said that there would need to be a mechanism through which the backstop could be brought to an end," a spokesperson said.

Sources in Dublin insisted there was "no shifting of ground" on the part of the Taoiseach because "the backstop would only be replaced if there was something better".

"The 'cast iron' aspect of this still applies," the source said.

In statement following the phonecall, Mr Varadkar's office said the "outcome of any such review could not involve a unilateral decision to end the backstop".

It pointed to prior commitments made by the UK that the backstop must apply "unless and until" alternative arrangements are agreed.

While both sides have always said the negotiations are taking place between the EU and UK, there has been an unusually high level of contact across the Irish Sea in recent days.

The Irish view is that it would only come into play once the future relationship between the EU and UK has been finalised.

A spokesperson for Mr Coveney told the Irish Independent that the Government's position "has not changed one bit".

"This is not turmoil in the Irish political system or stories being leaked to the Irish media," he said.

The spokesperson also insisted the EU leaders remain steadfastly united behind the Irish cause.

Mr Varadkar will travel to Finland tomorrow for a meeting of the European People's Party where he will work to shore up support with his EU counterparts.