There can be no reversal of the December political guarantees on the Border in the Brexit negotiations, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney has said.
“To be very clear, the negotiations which were concluded before Christmas are very clear on the issue of the Border and many other areas,” he said.
“We want to ensure there is no pullback from those commitments in the broader negotiations as they move ahead.”
Mr Coveney was replying in the Dáil on Thursday to Labour leader Brendan Howlin, who said the legal basis for the December agreement was clearly running into the sand.
“That fudge has been subject to backpedalling by many elements within the British government since it was announced,” Mr Howlin said.
“At the time, the Taoiseach described the commitment as politically bulletproof, rock solid and cast iron,” he added.
The December agreement stipulated in the event there was no agreement between the UK and the European Union, the British would propose solutions to the problem of keeping the status quo on the Border.
If these were not agreed, the British said, then the UK would “maintain full alignment with those rules of the internal market and the customs union which, now or in the future, support North-South co-operation, the all-island economy and the protection of the 1998 economy”.
The Irish Times reported on Thursday the Government fears patience with the UK is running out in EU capitals and expects difficulties in translating the December guarantees into a legally binding agreement in talks over the coming weeks.
Mr Coveney said he had spoken on Wednesday at a conference in Louth on cross-Border business and Brexit, which was jointly hosted by the Newry and Dundalk chambers of commerce and was attended by 300 people.
“They need certainty on a fallback position, or a floor below which we will not fall in terms of Border questions and the future and the context of Brexit,” he added.
“We have that floor and that fallback position; it was negotiated before Christmas.”
Mr Coveney said he hoped it would not have to be used and that issues could be resolved with a broad trade agreement.
But it was difficult to see how using it could be avoided if the British government was determined to pursue a strategy resulting in the UK leaving the single market and the customs unions in an absolute way, he added.
He said there would be ongoing discussions with the British government on the issue.
Mr Howlin said efforts by the British government to put a legally binding framework in place were, as an Irish official had put it, irreconcilable with the stated British position.
“In the past week, the UK has clearly said it will be leaving the customs union but that it wants a new customs arrangement,” he added.
If, in the coming weeks, the UK did not set out details of its preferred deep and special partnership it had spoken of, he understood the EU would proceed to a Canada-style trade deal, said Mr Howlin.
"In such a scenario, we are looking at a hard border on the island of Ireland, " he added.
He claimed it had been difficult to find out exactly what Ireland was looking to achieve in phase two of the negotiations.
He was sure, he said, the Tánaiste would agree now was the time for specifics and clarity.
Mr Coveney said it was important to understand the process.
“We are moving from a political commitment that was made before Christmas to a legal document that will be a draft withdrawal agreement,” he added.
He said the EU was looking to draft this before the end of the month.
The discussions were focusing on ensuring the political commitments made by Britain, in the context of citizens’ rights, financial contributions and the Irish issues, would be part of a draft legal document on which both sides could agree.
“I do not think we can draw any conclusions about how this will look until we have clarity on what the British government is seeking,” said Mr Coveney.
He said the EU had made it clear it would be finalising its negotiating guidelines by the end of March and that those could be altered, amended and changed up to that point.