Brexit: Ireland will not ‘countenance’ deal involving customs checks – Varadkar

Johnson’s proposals create ‘major obstacles’ to deal, says Taoiseach

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he does not understand how customs checks between Ireland and Northern Ireland can be avoided under the proposed deal put forward by UK prime minister Boris Johnson.

Speaking in Stockholm after a bilateral meeting with the Swedish prime minister Stefan Löfven, Mr Varadkar said the Irish Government could not countenance any deal which resulted in such checks.

Mr Johnson is proposing a new plan that would allow the United Kingdom to leave the European Union on October 31st.

He wants Northern Ireland to leave the EU customs union – the bloc’s tariff-free trading area – but to remain aligned with the EU’s single market rules.


Mr Johnson said on Thursday that under his plan, there would be no checks on the Border but at “other points of the supply chain”.

Mr Varadkar said the comments, however, are “actually in contradiction to the papers presented by the UK government yesterday”.

“I think there are two major obstacles,” Mr Varadkar said in Sweden.

“The first is the proposal on customs. I don’t fully understand how we can have Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in a separate customs unions and somehow avoid there being tariffs and checks and customs posts between North and South.

“We need to tease that through.”

The Taoiseach added that “if we’re going to be in two different custom unions, I think that creates a real difficulty that’s going to be very hard to reconcile.”

No deal

“I think if we end up in a no-deal scenario, it may be the case that we have to live with no-deal for a period of time. Ireland will do what is necessary to protect the single market and ensure our place in the single market is protected, protecting our jobs and economy and prosperity.

“Having to do that for a period of time while we negotiate a deal or while we pursue other solutions is very different to an Irish Government actually signing up in an international treaty to putting in place checks between north and south and that is something that we can not countenance.”

Mr Varadkar has also raised concerns around proposals for a so-called Stormont lock which would give the Northern Ireland assembly a vote on future EU rules in the region.

“The issue of consent and democracy is important. I said before that any consent mechanism must reflect the views of the majority of people of Ireland and Northern Ireland and no one party, not my party, not Sinn Féin, not the DUP should be in a position to veto what would be the will of majority of Northern Ireland and Ireland.”

Mr Löfven said he did believe it was possible to get a deal over the line and said he believed the text presented by the UK was a negotiating start point.

“Is it realistic, I can not give you a percentage. But yes, it is possible, otherwise we would not work on it. This was a paper, a legal text, we can start the discussions now so let’s really make an effort.”

Mr Varadkar said there are five ways to avoid a hard border, at least four of which would be acceptable to the Irish Government.

These include a united Ireland, Ireland rejoining the UK, the UK staying in the EU, the UK staying in the single market and customs union, or the backstop.

Mr Varadkar said that Ireland rejoining the UK is “of course never going to happen”.

The Taoiseach spoke to the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, and European Council president Donald Tusk separately by telephone following his meeting with Mr Löfven.

In a statement, the Government said the Taoiseach told them both he welcomes the fact Mr Johnson “ has put forward proposals as a basis for further discussion, but that major issues remain with the UK’s proposals, especially on customs, and with consent and democracy in the North.

“The Taoiseach reassured both presidents of Ireland’s commitment to protecting the EU single market and customs union, as well as protecting the Good Friday agreement and avoiding a hard border,” the statement added. “Time is short, and all pledged to stay in touch, both directly and through their teams.”

Government response

Earlier Tánaiste Simon Coveney told the Dáil there will be no Brexit deal if the paper presented on by Mr Johnson is the final proposal. He said, however, he believed Mr Johnson wanted to make a deal but he "could forgive anyone for being sceptical" because Ireland had not been treated well through the changing Brexit process.

The Government regarded the proposal as serious, and that was why they are responding cautiously.

“But if that is the final proposal there will be no deal,” he told TDs. “There are a number of fundamental problems with that proposal”.

It would not be the basis of a final agreement “but I hope it will be a stepping stone”.

But there were serious problems with the proposals for customs checks and over the role for the Northern Ireland Executive and a veto for any party on whether to stay in the agreement.

Mr Coveney was answering opposition questions about the British government’s proposals for a Brexit deal in the run up to the October 31st deadline.

Mr Coveney said “we cannot support any proposal that suggest one party or indeed a minority could make a decision for the majority on how these proposals would be implemented in the future. It would not be consistent with the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement”.

The Tánaiste said there were some positives in the proposal including full regulatory alignment for goods, for agri-food products on the island of Ireland.

There are two significant problems, one of which was customs. “If you are insisting on the North being in a separate customs territory they raise the prospect of a customs check and we think that’s going to be a real problem”.

He said it did not deal with the commitment to no border infrastructure and it did not deliver on a commitment to an all-island economy.

Mr Coveney added that the paper’s proposals on a customs border “fundamentally disrupts what the Belfast Agreement addressed – allowing nationalists and unionists to live together “on an island of Ireland that functions with two jurisdictions but with real convergence between the two so that a border is largely invisible”.

He added that the Government’s approach to the talks would be as they had always been – “calm, respectful but very firm on this”.

DUP reaction

DUP leader Arlene Foster criticised Mr Coveney’s remarks, and accused him of rejecting a reasonable offer and paving the road for a no-deal exit.

“Simon Coveney’s remarks are deeply unhelpful, obstructionist and intransigent,” she said.

“The Irish Government’s majoritarian desire to ride roughshod over unionism was one of the reasons why the Withdrawal Agreement was rejected.

“Mr Coveney’s rejection of a reasonable offer is paving the road for a no-deal exit because unionism will not allow Northern Ireland to be trapped at the whim of Dublin or the EU. We will not buy that.”

Ms Foster added: “The Irish Government’s preparedness to dump the consent principle for their country’s expediency is foolish in the extreme and sends a very clear message to unionists.

“From our 2017 manifesto to paragraph 50 of the December 2017 joint report, the consent of the people of Northern Ireland for specific solutions has been key. It is at the heart of the Belfast [Good Friday] and St Andrews Agreements, yet the Irish foreign minister is now railing against it because it doesn’t suit his agenda.

“There will be no return to the flawed backstop.

“We will leave the EU, customs union and single market alongside the rest of the United Kingdom.”

Johnson in the Commons

Mr Coveney was speaking after Mr Johnson said his customs proposals “do not involve physical infrastructure at or near the Border – or indeed at any other place”.

He told the House of Commons on Thursday: “This Government’s objective has always been to leave with a deal and these constructive and reasonable proposals show our seriousness of purpose.

“They do not deliver everything that we would’ve wished, they do represent a compromise, but to remain a prisoner of existing positions is to become a cause of deadlock rather than breakthrough.

“So we have made a genuine attempt to bridge the chasm, to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable and to go the extra mile as time runs short.”

Meanwhile European Parliament Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt said agreeing to Mr Johnson’s Brexit proposals would be “nearly impossible” because of the backstop ideas.

Mr Verhofstadt particularly cited its reliance on the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has not sat for almost three years. He told Channel 4 News: “On this element it’s very difficult — and nearly impossible. Because it’s mainly repackaging the bad ideas that have already been floated in the past.”

The Government and the European Commission have said they will engage with the British government over the coming days on proposals unveiled by Mr Johnson to replace the backstop.

However, there is little expectation in either Brussels or Dublin that a deal on the basis of new proposals is remotely possible in the weeks before the Brexit date of October 31st.

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray

Jennifer Bray is a Political Correspondent with The Irish Times