Ireland will not be ‘obstacle’ to UK getting more time on Brexit
Tánaiste says no legal changes to withdrawal agreement in the latest EU-UK package
Ireland will not be the ‘obstacle’ if the UK looks for more time and has a plan on Brexit, Tánaiste Simon Coveney has told the Dáil. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times.
Simon Coveney said the package agreed on Monday night between British prime minister Theresa May and the EU contained different language to what was in the arrangements previously in place.
But Labour Leader Brendan Howlin said he expected the backstop would have to be triggered because he did not believe an EU-UK trade deal would be completed within two years. The backstop is an insurance policy to ensure the border remains open in the event of the UK leaving the EU without a deal.
During Opposition leaders’ questions, Mr Coveney said there were no legal changes to the text of the withdrawal agreement on Monday or the protocols in it. “What is different is the reassurance and the process around that reassurance.”
He said “it is possible to replace the backstop in full or in part as long as the outcome continues to deliver the same effect, which is the avoidance of a hard border” in Ireland.
Mr Coveney highlighted different possibilities. If the future relationship was strong enough, then the backstop would never be triggered.
If alternative arrangements are proposed and accepted by both sides “they don’t have to look the same but they have to do the same job in terms of border infrastructure”.
He said if the backstop is triggered there are mechanisms in place for an arbitration process that can be initiated by the UK if it believes the EU is not acting in good faith and “it surely reinforces the case that the backstop is not to be a permanent arrangement”.
It “ puts a legal obligation on the EU to put processes in place that are convincing and that we will work in good faith with the United Kingdom to ensure that the backstop is never used and that if it is ever triggered that it will be temporary”.
Mr Howlin said it was quite likely that the backstop would have to be used because of a failure to agree a trade deal.
He said the legal text allows for the implementation of alternative arrangements to the backstop on a piecemeal basis that could have the “unintended consequence of ultimately diluting the legal efficacy” of the open Irish border.
He also criticised remarks by the Taoiseach about avoiding commentary in advance of the Westminster vote on Tuesday night. Westminster would not take on board concerns about commentating in advance of another parliament voting, he said.
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said he believed the agreement reached on Monday “ potentially allows the UK to wriggle out of the withdrawal agreement, albeit in a convoluted and long legal journey”.
But he said if there was no deal the beef industry, which is in crisis, would be “wiped out” and that it would be a “monumental failure of politics” if there was no agreement. He said the debate was around “how temporary” the backstop that everyone agreed should be temporary would be.
Sinn Féin TD David Cullinane sought Government assurance that “ the backstops remain in place and that the North cannot be taken out of the customs unions and the single market unilaterally by the British government”.
Mr Coveney said the legal changes added an extra layer to the process but any arrangement would lead to the same result - an open border. He told Mr Howlin that the Taoiseach’s comments were about not “contributing negatively to a fair deal getting ratified this evening”.
“We need to deal with the facts rather than trying to spin this in any direction,” he said.
The Tánaiste said alternative arrangements may well develop and “as long as they protect the agreement and avoid a hard border” they would be acceptable.