Brexit: Johnson and Coveney at odds over when to deal with Border

Conflicting views highlight impasse between sides on how to proceed with negotiations

The UK must find a way to ensure there is no return to Border checks on the island of Ireland after Brexit before the second phase of the talks on a future trading relationship with the EU can begin, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said. Video: Reuters


Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney and British foreign secretary Boris Johnson have offered conflicting views on when the issue of the Northern Irish Border should be addressed in the Brexit negotiations.

The remarks from the two ahead of their meeting in Dublin on Friday highlight the opposing views of the governments and the impasse between the sides on how to proceed with talks on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union and the aim of avoiding a hard Border on the island of Ireland.

The EU and the UK are at loggerheads over the Brexit “divorce” bill that is still being discussed after six rounds of negotiations during the first phase for talks, which London is keen to see the talks move on from next month in order to focus on a future trading relationship.

Speaking in Iveagh House on his first visit to Dublin since being appointed foreign secretary in July 2016, Mr Johnson told reporters the Border should be dealt with in the second phase of negotiations between the UK and the EU.

However, Mr Coveney said the matter should be addressed in the first phase of the talks.

Mr Johnson repeated the British government’s desire to avoid a hard Border, saying that “everybody recognises the unique circumstances” on the island.

“Everybody understands the difficulties that that Border poses and nobody wants to see a return to a hard Border. We must work on it and we have got to work on it together,” he said.

Proceed to second stage

Mr Johnson said to resolve those issues, negotiations between London and Brussels must move on to the issue of trade. “In order to resolve those issues and get it right for our peoples, it is necessary now to move on to the second stage of the negotiations which really entail so many of the questions that are bound up the Border issue,” he said.

Mr Coveney said all parties wanted to move on to second phase but added: “We are not in a place right now that allows us to do that.”

He noted there were 38,000 businesses in Ireland that trade with the UK every week and that they needed “certainty” and to hear politicians talk about trade and future relationships.

“But we also have very serious issues in phase one and in the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process that need more clarity than we currently have,” he said.

“And so we will have an opportunity to maybe tease through some of those issues but I think there is a lot of good faith on both sides.”

A EU paper leaked last week suggested Northern Ireland would in effect have to remain in the customs union and the single market in order to avoid a hard Border post-Brexit, a position aligned to the Irish Government’s view.

This proposal has been rejected by the British government.

Mr Coveney and Mr Johnson differed too on the duration of the transitional arrangements around Brexit; the Irish side believe the UK needs a period of up to five years after quitting the EU in March 2019, the UK side believes it should be two.

‘Fast as possible’

Mr Johnson said that his government wanted to move “as fast as possible to the meat of the negotiations” and the conversation around around all of UK’s borders with the EU, including the Irish Border.

Mr Coveney said that from the Irish viewpoint all parties were “in the meat of the negotiations right now on certain issues” and wanted to move on to “the meat of negotiations on trade” but more clarity was required.

The fundamental change in relations between the EU and the UK resulting from Brexit meant that people needed time and space to plan in an “orderly and managed” way, he said, and that it would take time for new trading relationships to be put in place between the UK and the rest of the world.

“It is going to take a number of years to finalise the detail of that,” he said. “I think the appropriate timetable is close to four or five years than to two.”

He acknowledged that there was “somewhat of an impasse here” but that in the absence of a “credible roadmap” to avoid a hard Border “from an Irish perspective, there is a sense of jumping into the dark here.”

Mr Johnson rejected any suggestion that the British government was constrained in the negotiations on the Border because of its reliance on the Democratic Unionist Party to remain in power in Westminster.

“Not at all - that is not the issue,” he said. “The issue really is how do we proceed as fast as possible with the substance of the negotiations which as I say really dictate some of the unravelling of the intellectual problem that surround all borders between the UK and the rest of the EU.”

In a moment of levity, Mr Coveney said that he did not think he and Mr Johnson would be able to resolve all of the issues during their talks, nor were they going to try.

His British counterpart agreed, but added: “I wouldn’t put it past us.”

In his opening remarks, Mr Johnson spoke warmly of the business and EU peacekeeping ties between Ireland and the UK and about his “many happy afternoons in my youth” spent in Dublin and his sampling of Irish stout on his world travels.

“In Nigeria I was lucky enough to drink Guinness and I won’t say that it was brewed by the waters of the Liffey but culturally and spiritually it plainly derived from Ireland like so many other great things around the world,” he said.