Brexit: No preparations made for hard border, says Varadkar

Taoiseach concedes no-deal poses ‘dilemma’ during sometimes testy Dáil exchanges

A former shop known locally as Matt the Bakers at the Border between Co Tyrone and Co Monaghan. Photograph: Bryn Colton/Bloomberg

A former shop known locally as Matt the Bakers at the Border between Co Tyrone and Co Monaghan. Photograph: Bryn Colton/Bloomberg

 

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has acknowledged that his Government would face a “dilemma” on the Border after a no-deal Brexit, as it would be faced with the need to keep the Border open but also the need to protect the EU’s single market and customs union.

Mr Varadkar’s admission came in the Dáil while he was being pressed by opposition leaders on what would happen on the Border in the event of a no-deal Brexit in the coming weeks.

Opposition leaders sought details on the Government’s contacts with the European Commission, with the Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin calling on the Taoiseach to “be upfront and tell the people” about the ongoing contacts with the European Commission about how to manage the Border if there is no deal on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.

The Government declined to give any details yesterday on preparations for arrangements on the Border following a possible no-deal Brexit, but confirmed that officials were in discussion with the European Commission on the subject.

Mr Varadkar described the contacts as “rough preliminary discussions” but it is understood that the commission has been pressing Dublin about its plans for weeks.

For months, Dublin said it would not discuss Border arrangements in the event of a no-deal Brexit as all sides were agreed there should be no return to a hard border. However, in recent days, and following the assessment of the commission and EU leaders last week that a no-deal Brexit was becoming increasingly possible, the pressure on the Irish Government has increased.

But Mr Varadkar denied he had come under pressure from the German chancellor Angela Merkel at the recent summit on Border preparations, as some reports suggested.

“If it has been reported that Mrs Merkel said ‘get on with it’, I can say that’s not the case,” he said.

EU impatience

But sources across Government have confirmed the growing EU impatience with the lack of Irish preparation on the Border issue.

Although Mr Varadkar was circumspect about the contacts with the commission, he acknowledged there would be competing priorities in the event of a no-deal Brexit in the coming weeks.

“What I can say is that we have made no preparations for a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, no preparations for physical infrastructure or checks or customs controls,” he told Mr Martin during sometimes testy exchanges on the matter.

“Even in the event of no-deal, we believe that the United Kingdom continues to have obligations under the Good Friday Agreement . . . but we also recognise that the UK will have obligations under WTO rules. And we will have obligations to protect our single market and our customs union as well. And that obviously is a problem, it creates a dilemma, and those are the conversations that we have to have as to what might be done in different hypothetical scenarios,” Mr Varadkar said.

‘No papers’

Mr Varadkar said there were ongoing contacts with the European Commission but the details of handling a no-deal Brexit depended on the stance the London government would take.

“There have been no papers, no documents exchanged,” Mr Varadkar said about Brussels-Dublin talks.

He said the Government and the EU would hold the UK to its commitments in the event of no-deal, including those in the Belfast Agreement and its pledges in the December 2017 Brexit agreement.

Later the Government spokesman declined to be drawn on the Government’s definition of a hard border – and whether it included border checks away from the border – or on the contacts between Dublin and the commission on the subject. He said the Government intended to maintain “the free flow across the Border to the greatest extent possible”. Sources reported a “lock-down” on briefing on the subject.

Mr Varadkar and Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney yesterday briefed the Cabinet on the state of Brexit preparations and on the contacts with EU leaders at the recent summit.