The UK will engage as early as next week with negotiators in Brussels on a legally binding fallback plan to keep Northern Ireland under EU rules.
This plan would be triggered to avoid a hard border if a deal cannot be agreed on Brexit or there is no specific solution brokered for Northern Ireland.
Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney insisted on Monday the issue of ensuring an open border on the island of Ireland was not “being kicked into the long grass”.
EU and British negotiators would start working on a legally binding text on a so-called “backstop” arrangement “sooner rather than later”, he said, after the UK renewed its commitment to this scenario in a fresh Brexit deal with the EU yesterday.
The backstop agreement would fully align Northern Ireland with EU economic rules and trading regulations in order to maintain an open border if it was not resolved by an EU-UK trade deal or specific British proposal.
“Meetings have been scheduled as early as next week to start discussions on how it will be finalised,” Mr Coveney told reporters in Brussels.
The British government reasserted its support for the backstop three weeks after UK prime minster Theresa May rejected it in the EU’s draft Brexit treaty because it would split Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
Mrs May wrote to European Council president Donald Tusk on Monday agreeing to include in the withdrawal treaty “operational legal text for at least the so-called ‘backstop option’” in parallel with talks around a “deep” EU-UK trade deal to avoid a hard border or a specific solution for Northern Ireland.
A spokesman for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the UK had publicly accepted the need for a backstop in the Brexit agreement and it was “as legally firm” as the Government said it would be in December.
Following a frantic round of talks in recent days, the EU and UK agreed to the inclusion of a new text in the draft withdrawal agreement that the backstop should apply “unless and until another solution is found”.
That agreement was accompanied by a key deal on the terms of the 21-month transition period after the UK quits the EU in March 2019 to avoid a sudden, disorderly exit that would damage British and Irish trade.
This is a climbdown by the UK as it will now remain under EU rules for almost two years after Brexit.
Mr Coveney stressed there was clear agreement a legally binding text on the backstop had to be in the Brexit treaty, and the withdrawal agreement itself could not be approved until a deal on Northern Ireland was agreed. “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed,” he said.
He ruled out any consideration of Norway-Sweden or US-Canada border models but said the Government would “enthusiastically” support efforts for an EU-UK trade deal that is “comprehensive enough” to avoid a hard border.
Despite objecting to the backstop last month, the DUP, which keeps Mrs May’s minority Conservative government in power, was unconcerned by the latest developments.
The party said in a statement that work would continue on the Border issue in the coming months and noted there had been “no agreement around how arrangements of any potential backstop” or other options would work.
“We will continue to work with the [UK] government on these matters and will be guided by the principle that there can be no internal border within the United Kingdom as we leave the European Union,” the party said.