Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said Ireland will be “flexible” about the so-called “backstop” on Northern Ireland agreed between his government, the UK, and the EU to prevent a hard border.
The purpose of the “backstop” is to ensure consistency of EU customs rules and regulations across the island of Ireland but this has been represented by its opponents in Prime Minister Theresa May’s Tory party as “drawing the border down the Irish Sea”.
Mr Varadkar highlighted the difficulties arising out of the UK and Ireland being in two different regulatory regimes earlier when he admitted plans are being drawn up to stockpile medicines in the event of the UK crashing out of the EU without a Brexit deal.
He returned to the subject again this week when he emphasised that the Irish government is less concerned than the as yet incomplete text of the “backstop” – always intended as a last resort, fall-back position in the event of no deal – than the practical outcome.
He told reporters: “When it comes to the backstop, our position has always been what matters is not the detailed legal text, it’s the outcome and so what we want the backstop to achieve is a guarantee that there won’t be a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
“I know the UK will say that that can be achieved through the future relationship but it could take years to negotiate that future relationship treaty and we don’t know for sure if that future relationship treaty will be ratified because it is likely to be a mixed treaty and any one country in Europe could potentially hold it up by not ratifying it.”
Echoing similar conciliatory comments a week ago in London by Foreign Minister Simon Coveney about wanting the post-Brexit relationship with the UK to work well, Mr Varadkar said the Irish government is “totally enthusiastic about solving the border question in the context of the new relationship between the EU and the UK, but that isn’t enough and we have to have the backstop as well.
“We have to have that assurance that unless and until a new solution is in place, that there won’t be a border. But yes, we can be flexible certainly on the content of it so long as the outcome is the one that we need.”
Asked about the continued absence of any formal government in Northern Ireland Mr Varadkar said uncertainty of Brexit had complicated matters but he hoped talks between the parties about restoring Stormont could resume in the autumn with an Assembly and Executive restored by the end of the year – just three months before the Brexit deadline.
Asked about Sinn Féin’s insistence on a border poll on a united Ireland he said he thought it would be “divisive and unsuccessful” and that now – against a backdrop of a political vacuum in Northern Ireland – was definitely not the time for one.