By Bernard Purcell
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that his promises to avoid a hard border if the EU drops the Northern Ireland backstop are not trusted or good enough.
The meeting between the two heads of government this week was a friendly enough affair – following weeks of Downing Street briefings against the Taoiseach and his government – but achieved little headway.
EU officials in Brussels say they have yet to receive any actual proposals from Downing Street on how to resolve the issue of Northern Ireland and Ireland being in two different economic zones after Brexit.
They also flat out deny claims by Mr Johnson and his ministers that negotiations are even taking place, much less making progress.
Mr Johnson suspended Parliament earlier than planned this week to prevent MPs forcing the government to publish secret documents about the economic aftermath of Brexit. They will not now reconvene in Westminster until just over a month from now.
The prorogation ended the longest parliamentary session since the UK was established by the Acts of Union in 1800. It formally began on 21 June 2017 with the State Opening, including the Queen’s Speech and since then 810 calendar days have since passed.
The previous record was the 2010-12 session which lasted 707 calendar days from the State Opening on 25 May 2010 to prorogation on 1 May 2012.
Mr Varadkar was straight talking as he welcomed Mr Johnson to Government Buildings in Dublin.
Before the meeting, he, and other Irish diplomats had made it clear that as Mr Johnson had broken faith with his own parliamentarians he could not expect to be trusted by parliamentarians of other countries.
The Taoiseach had also said he had seen no evidence of him being able to persuade MPs at Westminster.
Standing beside Mr Johnson he warned of the damage of a ‘no deal’ Brexit and said that even if that happened it would not mean a ‘clean break’ at all – just that prolonged, difficult and fraught negotiations would need to take place on EU citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and Britain’s border in Ireland.
Mr Varadkar said Ireland might regret the UK’s departure from the EU and would prefer if it stayed but nevertheless respects “the democratic and sovereign decision of the British people to leave the European Union”.
He said it was Mr Johnson’s repeatedly stated intention that the UK leaves the EU on 31 October “with or without a deal”.
“(But) the story of Brexit will not end if the United Kingdom leaves on 31st October or even January 31st - there is no such thing as a clean break. No such thing as just getting it done…we just enter a new phase.
“If there is No Deal – that is possible – it will cause severe disruption for British and Irish people alike.
“We will have to get back to the negotiating table. When we do, the first and only items on the agenda will be citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the Irish border.
“All the issues we had resolved in the Withdrawal Agreement we made with your predecessor. An Agreement made in good faith by 28 governments.
“If there is a Deal – and that is (also) possible – we will enter talks on a Future Relationship Agreement between the EU and UK.
“It’s going to be tough dealing with issues ranging from tariffs, to fishing rights, product standards and state aid. It will then have to be ratified by 31 parliaments,” he said.
He warned that negotiating Free Trade Agreements with the EU and US, and securing their ratification, in less than three years will “be a Herculean task for you”.
“We want to be your friend and ally, your Athena, in doing so. (*Athena was Hercules’ half-sister who protected him from Hera),” he said
“The manner in which you leave the EU will determine if that’s possible. Our businesses need long-term certainty.
“The people of this island, North and South, need to know that their livelihoods, their security and their sense of identity will not be put at risk as a consequence of a hard Brexit. The stakes are high.
“Avoiding the return of a hard border on this island and protecting our place in the single market are the Irish Government’s priorities in all circumstances.
“We must protect peace on the island and the burgeoning success of the all-island economy.”
He said this is a crucial time in the history of Britain and Ireland and though the two countries may sometimes differ “we are bonded by our shared past and shared kinship and…shared dream for the future of peace, freedom, and prosperity.
Mr Johnson said: “We must restore Stormont and we must come out [of the EU] on 31 October, or else permanent damage will be done in the UK to trust in our democratic system.”
“Like you, I’ve looked carefully at no deal and I’ve assessed its consequences.
“I have one message that I want to land with you today Leo and that is that I want to find a deal. I want to get a deal.
“The landing zone is clear to everybody. We need to find a way in ensuring that the UK is not locked in the backstop arrangements so there is a way out while giving Ireland assurances that it needs.
“Be in no doubt, that outcome would be a failure of statecraft of which we would all be responsible. I would overwhelmingly prefer a solution.”
Mr Johnson said he was moving ahead with his proposal to create a single regulatory zone north and south of the border for food and agriculture. Checks on animals and fresh produce would be carried out at ports and airports, rather than the border, and there would be pre-clearance systems for large, “trusted” traders.
The British Prime Minister said he did not underestimate the political sensitivities of the border issue and said he would double down to find a solution for the “sake of business, farmers and millions of ordinary people”.
Before the meeting, Ireland’s Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe told BBC Radio 4 that a suggestion being mooted by Downing Street to treat the island of Ireland as one for agriculture and food production would be insufficient to replace the backstop.
“As of this point in time my understanding is that the detail of how this would work is yet to be fleshed out,” said Mr Donohoe in London in an interview for BBC Radio 4.
He said the proposal does not go far enough as it fails to adequately cover issues of trade and how best to protect peace on the island of Ireland.
He said Ireland would be in favour of extending the 31 October deadline for Britain to leave the European Union because it could mitigate possible risks to the Northern Irish peace process and damage to its economy.