Brexit Secretary David Davis ‘clarifies’ his TV comments on radio
By Bernard Purcell
The UK’s Brexit Secretary David Davis this week rowed back on comments that seemed to unpick last weekend’s breakthrough on the Border after Brexit.
Mr Davis provoked the Irish government to rapidly respond to comments he made on BBC television’s Sunday morning Andrew Marr politics programme.
In the interview, in a sop to members of his own party who want a hard Brexit, he appeared to suggest that last Friday’s lengthy agreement in Brussels was not “legally enforceable” and only “aspirational” and “a statement of intent”.
On Monday he went on to LBC Radio in London to “clarify” his earlier remarks and said that by calling it a “statement of intent” he meant to convey the deal was, in fact, much more than just a legal agreement.
This meant, he said, that even if the withdrawal agreement didn’t happen, the UK would still want to keep its commitment to an invisible border with Ireland. He said he meant to convey that the deal was stronger than just being legally enforceable.
His comments followed those of Michael Gove, another leading Brexiter in the cabinet, who said voters could amend an EU withdrawal bill at the next election if they chose. He meant they could amend it it to take it further.
Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Irish government chief whip Joe McHugh all swiftly responded on Sunday to disavow Mr Davis’s remarks calling them “bizarre” and said the agreement is legally binding.
On Monday Mr Davis that his comments had been misunderstood: the UK would avoid a hard border even if a final deal did not happen.
“I said this was a statement of intent, which was much more than just legally enforceable.
“Of course it’s legally enforceable under the withdrawal agreement, but even if that didn’t happen for some reason, if something went wrong, we would still be seeking to provide a frictionless, invisible border with Ireland.
“I was making the point it was much more than what’s just in the treaty, it’s what we want to do anyway.”
The UK would seek to maintain a “frictionless, invisible” border even if last week’s agreement to allow trade talks start collapses in the event of a “no deal” Brexit, he said. Mr Davis claimed his words had been “completely twisted”.
“What I actually said yesterday in terms was we want to protect the peace process, want to protect Ireland from the impact of Brexit for them, and I said this was a statement of intent which was much more than just legally enforceable.
“Of course it’s legally enforceable under the withdrawal agreement but even if that didn’t happen for some reason, if something went wrong, we would still be seeking to provide a frictionless invisible border with Ireland.”
“What we’re saying is this bit of it, the bit about the full alignment argument on the issues which affect the peace process in the Belfast Agreement, we would look to that anyway because one of our absolute underpinning aims is to ensure that Ireland and particularly the Northern Ireland peace process is not harmed.
“And what’s most symbolic in that is the absence of a hard border, the absence of border posts and that sort of thing.
“And we are quite certain we can do that by technical and other means even if we end up without a deal with the European Union.”
Asked why he said the soft Irish Border deal was a statement of intent, Mr Davis replied: “Because it’s more than legally enforceable. “In the event that the withdrawal agreement doesn’t happen then we would still be seeking to maintain an invisible border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, that was the point. I was making the point it was much more than just in the treaty, it’s what we want to do anyway.”
Afterwards Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he was “very happy” Mr Davis has clarified his comments. Mr Davis dismissed concerns that a soft border between the UK and EU on the island of Ireland could encourage people smuggling.
“That would be a very hard way to get into Britain, you’d have to be a fairly dumb people smuggler to come in that way,” he said. “Something like 50 million people go through the country every year – tourists and so on – you go to Heathrow, look at it, there’s huge numbers of people, it’s much simpler to come in and pretend you’re a tourist than to take a sort of elliptical route like that.”
The Brexit Secretary said the UK would have talks with the Irish Government about sharing security data to ensure illegal immigrants do not exploit the soft border.
Also on Monday, the Northern Ireland secretary, James Brokenshire, said Friday’s border deal was not legally binding but was nevertheless a “solid commitment” by the UK to resolve the conundrum caused by Brexit.
He said the same paragraph also stated that the “joint commitments set out below in this joint report shall be reflected in the withdrawal agreement in full detail” and this was a “firm commitment that we want to pursue”.
“I think this has given us a really solid way in which we can now approach the second phase of negotiations, with confidence,” he said.