Simon Coveney rejects Brexit secretary’s backstop proposal

Tánaiste says a time-limited arrangement would not be ‘a backstop at all’

Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has rejected a proposal by British Brexit secretary Dominic Raab that the solution to the current Brexit stalemate would be a time-limited backstop, from which the UK could withdraw after three months.

The backstop is a guarantee agreed last year to avoid a hard Border in Ireland even if there are no future UK-EU trade deals after Brexit. However, the definition of the backstop remains disputed.

Mr Coveney said he had made it clear to Mr Raab at a private meeting in London last Tuesday that such a proposal would not be acceptable to the State and he believed that the EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, would similarly reject such a proposal.

According to a story in The Daily Telegraph, Mr Raab privately demanded the right to pull Britain out of the backstop after just three months at a meeting with Mr Coveney, even though that position later appeared to be contradicted by Britain's de-facto deputy prime minister, David Lidington.


But Mr Coveney was emphatic on Monday morning that such a proposal was a non-runner, expanding on a tweet he had earlier posted in which he said that “a time-limited backstop” or a backstop that could be unilaterally ended by the UK would never be agreed to by the Republic or the EU.

“I had dinner with Dominic Raab in London last week – it was a robust exchange of views but it was a respectful exchange of views, and it is true that Dominic Raab outlined some thoughts that he had had in relation to the backstop and the review mechanisms for the backstop,” he said.

“But I made it absolutely crystal clear to him that Ireland and, in my view, the EU could never support a time-limited backstop or a backstop that could be ended unilaterally by the UK alone after any review mechanisms in the future,” said Mr Coveney.

Speaking in Kanturk in Co Cork, where he was opening a new constituency office for Fine Gael Cork North-West candidate Cllr John Paul O'Shea, Mr Coveney said that Mr Raab's demand for a time-limited backstop amounted to something that was not "a backstop at all".

Mr Coveney said that the Irish Government had been consistent in its view that a backstop on the Irish Border has to be in place as an insurance measure to ensure that if the discussions on the future relationship between the UK and the EU don’t materialise, there won’t be any return to a hard Border in Ireland.

Mr Coveney said he felt it was “unfortunate” that the content of his conversation with Mr Raab had been leaked but that was the nature of politics. He dismissed any idea that Mr Raab may have been informed by some on the EU negotiating team that a time-limited backstop was a runner.

"No, absolutely not – if you look at the EU deputy chief negotiator Sabine Weyand, she has retweeted my tweet this morning that this was not a runner – she has made it very clear, but yet again in [a] respectful way through her retweeting, that this is the Irish position and it is the EU position too."

November deal

Mr Coveney said he still believed a deal on Brexit could be done by the end of November, adding that people should not be surprised that the current focus in talks is on the possibility of a backstop that will include all of the UK, with some additional measures for Northern Ireland to avoid a hard Border.

“We have always said that Ireland has no objection at all to the UK being in the customs union and to having a UK-wide element of the backstop as it applies to customs arrangements, but the detail of negotiating that is of course a matter for Michel Barnier and his negotiating team.

"That's because anything that gets negotiated needs to be legally operable within the withdrawal treaty and there are intensive negotiations going on in Brussels now to try and make sure the political considerations are being incorporated where possible into the legal text in a way that is legally sound.

"Michel Barnier has for some time being trying to accommodate the British prime minister's concerns that she doesn't want to see any customs checks between Britain and Northern Ireland – she doesn't want two customs unions applying to the United Kingdom.

“We don’t want any checks between Ireland and the United Kingdom if it can be avoided – we have a €70 billion trade relationship there – [and] we have said for many months that the easiest way to avoid checks is for Britain to remain part of the customs union and the single market.

"But it's the British side that have said that they don't want to be in the customs union or the single market permanently and that is why it is so difficult to resolve these issues legally, because if Britain says it's out of the customs union, it's out of the single market, it's out of the European Union.

“It wants to do its own bilateral trade deals around the world; that creates a big problem in the context of borders and checks and that is why the backstop is so important, but I think there is a middle-ground position that both sides can support but it does need to be legally sound.”

Barry Roche

Barry Roche

Barry Roche is Southern Correspondent of The Irish Times