Coveney sends sharp message to Johnson over backstop

Tánaiste plays down Varadkar’s suggestion backstop could apply to North only

Boris Johnson is expected to win the Conservative Party leadership on Tuesday and take over from Theresa May as prime minister on Wednesday. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Boris Johnson is expected to win the Conservative Party leadership on Tuesday and take over from Theresa May as prime minister on Wednesday. Photograph: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

 

Tánaiste Simon Coveney has warned the next UK prime minister that major changes to the backstop are “just not going to happen”.

Speaking on Sunday, Mr Coveney pledged to help rebuild relations between Dublin and London after Brexit, but stuck to the Government’s tough line on changes to the withdrawal agreement after the new British government takes office this week.

And he directed sharp words at Boris Johnson, who is widely expected to win the Conservative Party leadership on Tuesday and take over from Theresa May as prime minister on Wednesday.

“We cannot have a situation towards the end of Brexit negotiations where a new British prime minister makes demands that are totally contrary to the commitments that a government he has been part of has made for the last three years – and at the same time expects to be accommodated by the EU. I mean, that’s just not going to happen,” Mr Coveney said.

Mr Johnson has said the backstop will have to be cancelled, warning there will be a no-deal Brexit in October if the EU refuses to move on the guarantee.

The Tánaiste was speaking at a commemoration for former taoiseach John A Costello in Dublin. In his speech he warned of a “real danger that our two countries could lose the habit of co-operation” after Brexit but said he would work with London to strengthen ties, suggesting that new mechanisms and structures could be found to replace regular meetings at the EU.

“We will need to work and protect and develop our relations,” he said.

However, Mr Coveney added that there would be “inevitable tensions in the difficult weeks that lie ahead”.

Later, speaking to journalists, Mr Coveney played down the suggestion on Friday by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that the current UK-wide backstop could be replaced by a backstop that applied only to Northern Ireland.

DUP support

The all-UK backstop was inserted into the withdrawal agreement at the UK’s insistence, as it was unwilling to have the North treated differently from the rest of the UK, but some Government sources in Dublin privately speculate that the new UK government could revive the Northern Ireland-only backstop, even though this could imperil the support of the DUP for the Conservative government.

“We’ve always said that if the UK wanted to revert to the original proposal from the EU, which was a Northern Ireland-only backstop, that if the UK wanted to request that, that the EU would look at it,” he said.

Mr Coveney said it would not require an opening of the withdrawal agreement – which Dublin and Brussels have ruled out – but could be looked at under the review mechanisms in the agreement.

He said alternative arrangements on the Border or changes to the backstop could happen by agreement – “but it would have to be agreed by both sides”.

“The key thing for us is to have a withdrawal agreement ratified and then of course all of the content in that, including review mechanisms and so on, can take effect in time – as of course the commitment to explore in a serious way alternative arrangements to the backstop,” he said.

No Border infrastructure

Mr Coveney said the government was working with the EU to achieve the twin objective of protecting Ireland’s place in the single market and “not putting infrastructure on the Border”.

“But that doesn’t mean that there will not be checks somewhere,” he said. “It certainly doesn’t mean tariffs won’t be charged. We will have to treat Northern Ireland as a third country – unless the UK agrees to a backstop or something like it in the context of a no-deal Brexit.”

Government sources played down reports in British newspapers about a possible visit to Dublin by Mr Johnson this week if he becomes prime minister, suggesting that any visit would be more likely to take place the following week, though the two men are likely to speak by phone before then. “The Taoiseach looks forward to engaging with the new British prime minister at an early opportunity,” a spokesman said.