Ireland open to new proposal on Brexit border
The Irish government is open to the possibility of a fresh proposal for a deal on the Irish border but, in a blow to Theresa May, says it will consider a new plan only if it is better than the one currently on the table.
The Irish finance minister, Paschal Donohoe, made his comment hours after the prime minister demanded that the EU abandon its stance and “evolve its position” to include a guarantee there would be no border in the Irish Sea in the event of no deal.
“The only thing that could replace this current form of a backstop is, number one, something which is better; number two, something which is agreed and number three, something that would be legally operable,” Donohoe told Irish state broadcaster RTE.
“The Irish government is very clear that the Irish backstop must be retained for any future agreement between the EU and the UK to be put in place,” he said.
In a speech in Belfast, the prime minister said it was time for the European Union to drop what she believes is its inflexible view on an Irish border solution and “evolve” its position to break the impasse in Brexit talks.
She branded the EU proposals “unworkable”, and repeated her assertion that a border down the Irish Sea was unacceptable to any British prime minister.
May said she was still committed to a backstop, or insurance policy, in the event of no deal but that it had to deliver the December joint report that sowed the seeds of the current conflict by guaranteed regulatory alignment both north and south of the border and between Northern Ireland.
May told an audience of business leaders in Belfast’s Waterfront that the government had “put an approach on the table which does precisely that”, with a goods-only proposal that would involve near-frictionless trade.
“It is now for the EU to respond. Not simply to fall back on to previous positions which have already been proven unworkable. But to evolve their position in kind,” she said.
Rajesh Rana, the president of the Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce, who was in the audience, said: “That is a great deal if we can get it, but I don’t think the EU will allow it. If they give the UK a free trade agreement involving a frictionless border without freedom of movement, other countries will just say they want that too.”
May used her speech to slap down hard Brexiters who said the Irish border was Dublin’s problem, not Britain’s. “We can’t solve it on our own, but nor can we wash our hands of any responsibility for it,” she said.
The EU’s other 27 states will have a chance to examine and respond to the white paper when its general council of ministers meets in Brussels on Friday morning. They will also receive an update on negotiations from the European commission’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.
May’s decision to push back so strongly against the EU and Ireland’s demands for a backstop will fuel fears in Dublin that she is backsliding on the joint agreement in December to secure insurance in the event of no deal.
Her opposition to a border in the Irish Sea was cemented on Monday when a last- minute amendment to the customs bill, tabled by the Labour MP Kate Hoey, was nodded through, making it illegal to have a barrier between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
May is on a two-day visit to Ireland – her first to the Irish border. On Thursday, she spent two hours meeting business leaders at a pottery factory in the village of Belleek on the Fermanagh and Donegal borders, but did not take questions from reporters.
Before leaving the factory, May met local woman Delma Käthner, who told her she was “bionic”. “She’s coped with so much,” said Käthner. “She has a terrible job. Just look at the way her shoulders are hunched. She has the whole weight of Brexit on her.”